The Robots are Coming:
Robotic Material Handling Applications in Distribution and Fulfillment Centers
How robotic solutions, used for decades in manufacturing plants, are moving downstream into today’s DCs
By Chris Arnold, VP, Operations and Solutions Development, Intelligrated Matt Wicks, VP, Controls and Software,   Intelligrated
and Earl Wohlrab, Product Manager, Palletizing and Robotics Systems, Intelligrated
 For decades, robots have been a common sight in manufacturing plants across the globe. From upstream production and assembly applications, welding, fabrication and painting to downstream end-of-line tasks such as case packing and palletizing, robots are tried and true productivity solutions in manufacturing. The applications that they perform share a common thread of precision and repeatability - the sweet spot of historical robotic applications. Any process which calls for the same task to be completed repeatedly, particularly if it is dirty, dull or dangerous, is a prime candidate for a robotic application.
However, as the capability of robotic mobility, vision guidance and control software evolves, so does the ability of robots to function in more dynamic and unstructured environments – functions that are more closely aligned with tasks that are done manually in today’s distribution and fulfillment centers. This new frontier will call for robotic solutions that are capable of performing unpredictable, inexact, not always repeatable tasks, and require a higher degree of spatial and object awareness through use of real-time, adaptive control algorithms. This paper will compare traditional material handling solutions with their robotic counterparts within the distribution and order fulfillment center, and where these solutions might be heading in the future.
 
Robots, Automation and the Drive Towards a Smarter Supply Chain
The high costs and multiple employee touches associated with product receiving, shipping and order filling in today’s distribution and fulfillment centers provide potential targets for robotic automation.
These functions include: receiving; put away and replenishment; order fulfillment; pack out; and shipping. Let’s take a closer look at how some of these operations have traditionally been handled and then review potential robotic solutions that could assist    workflow.
 
          
Robotic Solutions in Distribution and Fulfillment
Operation    Manual Solution    Robotic Solution    Application Evolution*

Receiving    
Floor load truck unloading    
Automatic robotic truck unloading    
     Sort, segregate and label    Integrated sort and label by robot (build pallets or crossdock)
or
Single or multi-sku robotic palletizing    
 
Put Away and Replenishment    
Pallet  transportation    
Intelligent mobile robotics    
    
Pallet and case rack and shelving    
Random case storage and retrieval    
 
De-casing to tote    
Robotic vendor case preparation    
 
Fulfillment    
Stand and pick from pallet    
Robotic depalletizing or
Goods to robotic pick station    
 
    Ride and pick to  pallet    Mobile robotic case pick    
   
Walk and pick to belt    
Robotic case pick isle    
     Push and pick to cart    Robotic pick from vendor case    
 

    Walk and pick to tote    Robotic pick from vendor case    
 
Packing    
Order consolidation    
Robotic operator    
   
Carton forming    Machine  automation    
   
Manual product insert    Machine/robotic automation    
 
  
Dunnage    Machine/robotic automation    
 
 
Packing slip and promotional inserts    Machine/robotic automation    
 

    
Manual close    Machine/robotic automation    
 

    
Manual label    Machine/robotic automation    
 




Shipping    
Manual floor truck  loading    
Robotic mix case floor loading    
 

    Manual pallet building    Robotic pallet building    
 

    Manual  full  pallet delivery    Robotic pallet trailer  load    
 

*Based on today’s technology, capabilities and expected ROI, the more filled in the circle, the closer the solution is to widespread adoption
 
What’s Around the Corner?
Given the increasing velocity of innovation and investment in robotics, we can expect that both cost and complexity of existing robotic solutions will diminish. Scientists and engineers are working on developing low cost, high functionality robots, equipped with high degree of freedom (DOF) arms and highly adaptable grippers. Coupling this with cameras, sensors and sophisticated software will enable robots to “see” objects, “feel” forces and
“understand” tasks. There is a desire to develop robots that replace continuous repetitive tasks and are able  to safely interact with individuals to assist them in performing specific tasks done manually today.
 
When it Comes to Automation Solutions, Consider Robots a Part of Your Plan
Increasing productivity while controlling cost will continue to drive more workflow automation  into the supply chain. While not every aspect of the distribution center activity is a candidate for robotic automation, new improvements in robotic technologies will help DC operators understand
and create more efficient workflow areas to remain competitive and maximize profitability. Our best advice is to discuss potential robotic applications with a certified robotic material handling   integrator
partner, and discern how and when the best time is to consider deployment of robotic solutions.

For more information, contact Intelligrated by email at info@intelligrated.com, by phone at 866.936.7300, or visit www.intelligrated.com.