China’s warehousing robots and their impact on logistics worldwide

A quiet revolution in the nature of warehousing robots has taken place in the past 18 months, and it may impact warehousing and logistics worldwide in the next decade.

China – the powerhouse of logistics innovation

China is both the largest and fastest growing robotics market in the world and the fastest changing logistics and warehousing region. The two, quite clearly, are linked. But why is China leading the world in this area?  Two reasons:

  • China’s immense size has always required innovative approaches to transporting goods, from the Silk Road to today’s delivery drones
  • China has the highest proportion of global exports in the world at over 13.8%, the highest share any country has experienced since the United States back in 1968.

China’s exports require automated warehousing

Mainland China is the world’s biggest and fastest growing robotics market in the world – with 13 industries from manufacturing to medical applications investing heavily in robotics. The second highest spend, behind manufacture, comes from transporting, warehousing, and logistical delivery of goods. To maintain market share, China has to continue to invest in rapid, cost-effective systems – which is why central government has funded an initiative called ‘Made in China 2025’ which accelerates the automation of all major industries. Underpinning this initiative is the simple reality that whether you make cars or prosthetics, deliver teaching materials or bespoke tailored clothing, everything that China makes needs to be packed, transported, picked and delivered – logistics is the central spine of China’s export industry.

Alibaba’s smart warehouse shows the future of logistics

T-mall, a subsidiary of Alibaba, the world’s biggest online retailer, has opened a 3,000 square metre warehouse in China entirely run by robots. The devices are wifi enabled and self-charging, and operate not in the place of human workers but in conjunction with them. The Zhu Que, or Vermilion Bird, receives picking information by wifi and heads off into the warehouse to locate the SKUs and place them at designated drop offs. They travel at nearly two metres a second, can carry a pick load of up to 600kg and work for eight hours before they need charging. Sixty of the robots operate around the clock, and have trebled the efficiency of the warehouse. Once the goods are in the drop off zone, human workers sort them for sending out – with the warehouse robots doing the heavy lifting, human operatives have doubled their work rate from 1,500 items per shift to around 3,000. A further feature of the robots is that they can lift shelving and rotate it to make collecting items easier, rather than having to walk around a shelf system to find something stored on the other side, as human operatives do.

STO Express – robots replace manpower

STO Express is one of China’s big three delivery companies and it uses 300 Little Orange robots to sort 20,000 parcels per hour. The Little Oranges have replaced 70% of the human operatives in the Linyi warehouse in Shandong.

Collaborate or replace? How robots are influencing logistics development

Deutsche Post/DHL has ‘swarming robots’ in its Tennessee warehouse – their job is to identify medical devices that require rapid shipping. Quiet Logistics, which fulfils online orders for Zara and Bonobos has the same swarming robot technology in its American warehouses. The key selling points for collaborative robots are:

  • They are small
  • Relative cheapness (tens of thousands of dollars)
  • Little infrastructure change required – unlike the miles of conveyor belts and automation systems that are necessary for full automation
  • They have surge capacity – at busy times of year or when contagious illness strikes a facility collaborate robots can take the strain.

As warehousing is squeezed, robots reduce space requirements

Many warehousing facilities are struggling to increase output from limited space, and when it becomes impossible to fit any more people into a building, robot automation can help. Fetch Robotics makes ‘fetch’ robots that link pickers with packers. One set of employees picks parts from shelves and puts them on the robots which then travel over to workers at packing stations who prepare the goods for shipping. In one Santa Fe factory they handle around half the items shipped each day, in around half the time it takes a human worker and without massive capital investment.

‘Chuck’ is the brainchild of former Kiva executives who helped create the Amazon automation systems. Chuck is a robot that leads human stock pickers through warehouses, flashing a light to show where the next SKU is located. Human operatives pick the item and place it on the robot before moving on to the next spotlit item.

The 2017 Amazon Robotics Challenge was won by the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision. Their budget-range robot called Cartman was the victor in an annual contest that requires engineers to build a robot to successfully identify, pick up, and stow warehouse goods. The unusual feature that Cartman brought to the event was a slider arm rather than a crane style ‘picker’.

Basic robotic applications in the UK warehouse logistics field

DHL has just invested in four Sawyer robots for its UK and Irish operations. Ocado has full swarm robot capacity in its Andover warehouse. However, outside of Amazon, few UK based organisations are considering full robotic automation, preferring to consider the collaborative and/or swarm approach to link human operatives to robotic activity.

Potential limits to robotic applications in the UK

One problem for many UK warehouses is that they are adapted buildings: former factories or mills in many cases, which have limited capacity for robotic installations. Purpose built warehouses have much greater opportunities for increasing vertical storage space which is ideal for robot picking as machines are not limited by health and safety concerns and can select SKU from several times the height permitted for human operatives.

A further concern is the effect that robots may have on manual warehouse tasks, and a draft report for the European Parliament in 2016 even suggested a ‘tax’ on robots to try and maintain employment in the logistics and warehousing sectors.

3PL warehousing may give small businesses the chance to try out robot picking for themselves – to discover if robotic logistics are for them, perhaps a semi-automated warehouse to evaluate the difference it makes to logistics operation.

 

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