Intelligent Warehouse Robots Automate Worker Tasks

The pandemic has led to an uptick in ecommerce across the board, and warehouses are struggling to meet demand. Warehouse automation systems are fast, accurate, and safe, giving companies a robotic hand as they respond to the increased need.

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Image credit: Boston Dynamics

The pandemic has led to an uptick in ecommerce across the board, and warehouses are struggling to meet demand. Warehouse automation systems are fast, accurate, and safe, giving companies a robotic hand as they respond to the increased need.

Warehouse automation is on the rise. Many companies have some measure of automation, but they have yet to realize the full potential of the technology. That’s likely to change. Global sales of warehouse automation technology are climbing at a CAGR of 11.7 percent and are projected to reach $27 billion by 2025.

Several factors are fueling this growth. Online sales were up 30 percent in the first half of 2020, and ecommerce is likely to remain strong even when the pandemic subsides. Warehouses are getting larger to accommodate additional sales growth. Consumer demand for rapid order fulfillment—same day or two-day delivery—is growing. Labor costs are increasing, while companies simultaneously face a shortage of workers. Safety is a concern as well.

It’s no wonder distribution centers are looking at warehouse automation, and they are finding robots can address many of these concerns.  


Getting a Handle on Fulfillment

Robotics company Boston Dynamics is developing a smart robot to improve efficiency in the warehouse. Handle is a mobile robotic arm that can unload trucks and put boxes on or off pallets and conveyors at a rate of up to 360 boxes per hour. It uses 2D and 3D perception to identify and find boxes in multiple locations, even across multiple manufacturing lines, to build mixed-SKU pallets. Handle can stretch to reach packages up to three meters high, and then can transform into a more compact form to wheel around the warehouse or move to another building.

The company’s vision processing software, called Pick, can be integrated into Handle for added functionality and speed. Pick provides deep-learning capabilities and a 2D/3D camera that can locate and move boxes throughout the warehouse, without requiring operators to pre-register SKUs. The high-speed vision processing technology allows the Pick-enabled Handle to move up to 720 boxes per hour. Motion planning functionality allows Pick to establish paths when removing boxes from pallets, and it can unpack single-SKU and mixed-SKU pallets, a first in US warehouse robotics, according to Boston Dynamics.

Partners are showing interest in the Boston Dynamics’ technology. IHI Industrial Logistics and Machinery in Japan integrated the Pick software in a Motoman MPL-100 II robot with a vacuum arm tool. IHI claims it works autonomously moving thousands of boxes with minimal training and 99 percent "detection reliability." In another collaboration, Boston Dynamics recently teamed with OTTO Motors, which manufactures autonomous mobile pallets for cargo. The two robotic devices essentially eliminate the need for workers to interact with the robots in the warehouse. 

A Warehouse-Within-a-Warehouse

For companies with smaller items and thousands of SKUs, OPEX developed the fully robotic Perfect Pick Warehouse. The warehouse system uses its own enclosure and wireless iBots to collect items within it.

Robots move through aisle at manufacturer

Image credit: OPEX

The enclosures are 200 feet long, 32 feet tall, and up to 14 feet wide. They have a series of storage racks with bins, or totes, along either side of an open aisle where up to 22 iBots can move. The iBots are autonomous vehicles that receive instructions from the host software via 2.4 Ghz connectivity. They fit between the two rows of totes and move horizontally and vertically on an integrated track to access every tote inside. The iBots are self-charging and can notify operators when maintenance is required.

The iBots are linked to processing stations, located at either or both ends of the structure, where workers scan items to place in inventory. The Cortex Equipment Control System handles inventory and order processing at the workstations. The software identifies the cell within the tote where that item is stored and notifies the iBot to collect that tote. When the iBot returns the tote to the processing station, the item and cell are indicated on the screen; the cell also lights up, so the worker knows where to place the scanned item. The iBot then returns the tote to the rack. The process works in reverse for order fulfillment.

The entire system can be managed through the OPEX Remote Performance Monitor (RPM) software. The RPM gives warehouse managers real-time and historical iBot performance metrics in a cloud-based dashboard.

Automated warehouse systems reduce costs, improve accuracy, and free employees to work on more complex tasks. That makes companies more productive and profitable.

  • Visit Boston Dynamics for more information about the Handle and Pick.
  • Watch tutorials about how to integrate sensors and interface with Boston Dynamics’ technology.
  • Learn more about the Perfect Pick Warehouse and iBots at OPEX.
  • Get to know OPEX partners.


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