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December 11, 2018

When Robots, Drones, and Automated Forklifts Rule Your Pallet Racks

As we write this blog, it’s December of 2018, and the new year is right around the corner. Depending on the products you keep in your warehouse, this could be the least busy or the busiest time of the year. Sales will certainly change during the course of the year depending on whether you sell lawnmowers or snowblowers, or bathing suits or winter coats!

While most people think of warehouses as being technology wastelands, more warehouses are becoming automated and sometimes contain the most complex pieces of machinery a business owns. This is certainly true when it comes to warehouse robots, forklifts, and drones, which are three of the hottest trends in the future of warehouses. Whether it’s stocking pallet racks, finding inventory on them, taking inventory on a daily basis, or picking and packing from industrial conveyor systems, there’s no doubt that automated machines will play a big part in the future of warehouses.

The new year seems as good a time as any to talk about warehouse trends and what it means for the future of industrial pallet racks and material handling systems, including how they’ll work with robotic machinery. Not all of these will apply to every business, depending on your supply chain and the inventory you sell. But we’ll bet you’ll be looking to “hire” something robotic in the next five years.

Robots

Robots in warehouses aren’t necessarily new. They’ve been stacking pallets that come off of production lines and conveyor systems for decades. They’re quite good at loading a pallet as efficiently as possible to make the best use of space and to keep the load even.

While those big pallet-loading machines would spin their arms around quite a bit, they were usually stationary. The big change that has been occurring with robots recently is how mobile they are, sometimes sharing space with their human counterparts. Some robots are involved in stocking inventory, while others can pick and pack.

One benefit of robots is that they can work all-day-every-day, and they don’t need to take breaks (except for recharging, which some robots deal with by changing out their own rechargeable batteries). Some can even work with the lights off.

 

What About Your Warehouse?

Whether or not you’ll be “employing” robots anytime soon depends primarily on the workflow of your warehouse. Do you have thousands of items going out the door on an average day? Then you might want to investigate what robots can do for you. On the other hand, if you stock large items that are worth thousands of dollars and only ship a few items out per week, you’re more likely to stick with a traditional forklift.

 

What Are The Problems?

Machines can be efficient, but when they’re inefficient then they’re very inefficient. A machine that breaks down — whether it’s software or hardware related — will take a specialist to fix, which means that it could be down for days at a time. And that’s after it’s already caused a mess of inventory.

Another problem that robots encounter is robot/human interaction. While robots can be programmed to spot humans, they can’t always be relied on (yet) to avoid bumping into people’s ankles or running over their feet. In many warehouses, it’s the humans who are told to avoid the robots…”just in case.”

It’s also important to remember that machines are there to do work, which means they’re taking jobs away from people. While that might be exactly what you’re looking for in order to save money, it could also be a public relations nightmare.

Automated Forklifts

A forklift might be your next robot. While most people think of robots as being machines the size of a microwave, they certainly don’t have to be. It’s very likely that, in the future, you’ll simply tell your robot forklift which pallet you need and it will go get it for you. (You might not even have to tell it, if it notices that inventory levels are low at the picking/packing station.) Will robots ever completely replace humans who drive forklifts? While we’d like to see a John Henry vs. The Machine style competition, the fact is that robotic forklifts are already around and in operation.

 

What About Your Warehouse?

While many small robots rolling around might not be right for every warehouse, robotic forklifts could benefit most of them. As long as a warehouse is set up with the proper sensors, barcodes, and RFID chips, a robotic forklift could easily be sent off to grab anything in the building.

 

What Are The Problems?

It’s not the end of the world if a small robot crashes into a guardrail, or if a drone drops a $20 items. But if an automated forklift goes nuts, watch out! Being driverless isn’t going to reduce the weight that much, and a robot forklift will still need to be nearly 10,000 pounds in order to lift heavy items from pallet racks. If a sensor gets misaligned, it could cause a serious industrial shelving collapse. But if humans are kept away from robot forklifts, as they should be, at least people won’t be around this dangerous situation.

 

Drones

Drones, sometimes called unmanned aerial vehicles, are essentially flying robots. But there are a few major differences to highlight. First of all, drones can get above pallets so that they can see down into boxes with open tops. Optical sensors can be utilized to identify and count items, immediately returning that information to the warehouse computers. This can help a warehouse determine inventory levels much faster.

Drones can also use their scanner to identify the barcodes on pallet racks or the pallets themselves from a greater distance, allowing them to find a particular location faster. And if the drone is powerful enough, it can bring an item down from a top shelf much faster than a person can go get a forklift, lower the pallet, find the item, replace the pallet, and return the forklift to its parking spot. There’s also less a chance of the pallet rack getting hit by the forks or the pallet being returned misaligned.

 

What About Your Warehouse?

If you use robots in your warehouse, it’s likely that you’ll find a use for drones as well. Again, the primary decider for many warehouses is inventory turnover.

 

What Are The Problems?

The biggest restriction with drones is the amount of weight they are able to carry. In general, drones can’t carry more than a few pounds, though the amount they can carry is getting better all the time. Like robots, a drone that is damaged is going to be out of commission until a professional can take a look at it.

Another problem: danger. If you think it’s bad getting hit in the ankle by a robot on the ground, imagine getting hit with a drone propeller at eye level! Drone/human interaction is an even bigger problem than the average robot/human interaction. Sure, drones make the telltale droning sound when they’re nearby, but when there are multiple drones in a warehouse humans tend to tune it out.

 

How Close Are You?

We certainly don’t expect every warehouse to be completely automated anytime soon, but big retailers are certainly leading the way with all three of the robots we’ve been discussing. Interestingly, the robots being created today might determine which kind of pallet racking system you look at in the next few years. Contact the experts at DAK Equipment and Engineering to find out more about the future of warehouses!

 

 

 

 
 
 
 

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