Published On: Fri, Sep 28th, 2012

Warehouse Bots Do Battle to Make Same-Day Delivery a Reality | Wired Business |

Warehouses used to hire a decent number of people. Organisations like Amazon had huge warehouses that were surprisingly old fashioned with people picking up items and packaging them up.  Companies are developing robotic solutions to warehouse pickers, however, which will both improve the customer experience and will cut back heavily on jobs.

As with many things in life, this is both good and bad news.  Wired tells the story:

At the moment, most of the massive distribution centers housing the goods you order online are still staffed by humans. And on the surface, people might seem perfectly well-suited to one of online retail’s core tasks: order fulfillment. The human brain and body working together would seem to come perfectly equipped to find that tube of toothpaste you ordered from Amazon, pull it off the warehouse shelf, box it up, and load it onto the truck. That process works fine for one order of one item. But in operations where thousands of orders can come in each hour, human networks don’t scale all that well. Essentially what large-scale e-commerce fulfillment operations create for their workers is the world’s most complicated trip to the grocery store.

In traditional offline retail, distribution centers serve as way stations between wholesalers and consumers. Goods stored by the pallet and case are shipped to stores, where clerks break them up and put the individual items on shelves for customers to grab what they need. Online retail upends that traditional model by necessitating that someone — or something — act as a customer’s stand-in.

“The process of shopping is pushed back into the distribution centers,” says Bill Leber, director of business development at Swisslog. “Somebody has to go out there and basically go shopping for the consumer behind the scenes.”

With tens of thousands of items spread across tens of thousands of square feet at a typical distribution center, maintaining platoons of order fillers known as “pickers” gets costly and complicated. Not that pickers just wander up and down the aisles until they spot what they need. Even so-called “manual” systems rely on software as orders come in to point people along paths that, for instance, maximize the number of items they pick up along the way. Still, humans get tired. They move at different speeds. Some are stronger than others. We get distracted, cranky, lazy, and hurt. And you have to pay us.

In that context, robots become increasingly attractive as the level of efficiency required to deliver on such logistically demanding promises as same-day delivery rises. Kris Bjorson, a supply chain consultant who heads the retail distribution group at Jones Lange LaSalle, says at that point only automated systems can ensure the necessary speed and accuracy. “You can’t keep on throwing labor at it,” he says. “It’s got to be right and it’s got to be on time. You don’t have that margin of human error.”

via Warehouse Bots Do Battle to Make Same-Day Delivery a Reality | Wired Business |

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