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Next level please

13 August 2020

“Some operations are simply not suitable for automation,” says Stephen Burton, managing director of Windsor Materials Handling, on the evolution of MHE.

Never make predictions, so they say, especially about the future. The scope and structure of Tomorrow’s Warehouse is not really a prediction though, it’s an established fact - the continuation of a trend that takes us ever closer to a fully automated future, full of drones, robots, AGVs and AI.

At least, that appears to be the received wisdom from those proffering those solutions. If the COVID-19 crisis, USA-China trade war and Brexit tell us anything, it’s that received wisdom may sometimes let us down, while outside factors can drive massive change. Social-distancing, onshoring, and fatter inventories are now more prominent in logisticians’ minds, having a tangible effect on warehouse operations.

There’s still a sense that big sheds, with greater uniformity of products, are more suitable to having a robot workforce, particularly as they can carry the scale of the initial investment. Goods-to-person systems, still require the person of course, but predicting growth in this sector is a fairly safe bet.

Warehouse operators too seem to have already been written off, but it’s worth noting that there are many large warehouse operations where automation is not the answer. Setup cost and scale are often factors, but humans are remarkably resistant to temperature and dust, and make decisions on experience or predictions that robots struggle to anticipate. Like it or not, however, the logistics industry is changing. Augmented reality and smart data may tackle some of the issue, with less downtime and fewer operational hiccups as a result. Perhaps drones too will deliver parts, picked robotically from shelves having been 3D printed in the first place.

We should not overlook the new warehouses being developed on fairly traditional picking methods. There are also a host of manufacturers, including Still and Rocla that are adapting their MHE ranges to add automated picking to existing equipment.

Still’s iGo neo OPX is an autonomous low level order picker with collision avoidance, intelligent detection of moving objects and the ability to handle loads up to 1,100mm wide. With hands free operation and no remote control needed, it’s exactly the sort of ‘evolution not revolution’ equipment that appeals to those looking to steadily automate their current picking process.

The technology readily fits within existing operations and the payback time of investment is very short, for example in a three-shift operation it can be less than a year. Guided by wire, magnetic dots or lasers, the automated vehicles can replace traditional forklifts, for less overall cost, once damage and labour are factored in.

Managed well, using human decision-making ability and the robustness of a forklift or reach truck, manually operated equipment get the job done. With the cost of automation decreasing and the prospect of socially distanced, continuous operations, perhaps AGVs will gain an edge. And yet, fast-forward to a not-too-distant future with higher unemployment rates and a coronavirus vaccine, and the humans may still have the last laugh once again.
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