Should your warehouse being going dark?

Dark warehouses are the future, but they aren’t the immediate future. In 2021, only 20% of warehouses had any degree of automation, which means 80% of warehousing is still completely non-automated. However, there’s a strong chance that if you operate warehouse space and have an international supply chain, at least part of that chain may be dark. And projected figures say that by 2030, robots and other forms of automation technology are going to reach 85% of warehouses – and this will happen quicker in Europe than other parts of the world, because the cost of human personnel is higher here.


What are dark warehouses?


Dark warehouses aren’t necessarily dark – they just could be. In other words, a ‘dark warehouse’ is a space within which, if you turned out all the lights, all the activity would continue. How? Because robots using sensor guidance are picking and packing all the SKUs. But just as few warehouses are automated, almost none are fully dark, because even in the space where robots do all the work, human decision-making is still required, just higher up the decision chain that which products to pick and how to pack them.


What do dark warehouses contain?


  • Robots – obviously. But warehouse robots aren’t necessarily autonomous machinautomation and dark warehousinges that scurry around like R2D2. Robots are much more likely to be Robots as a Service (RaaS). This is where the kind of robotics most useful to a warehousing operation – such as autonomous forklifts – are leased from a robotics company, reducing set up costs and removing the risk of having to manage maintenance, repair and upgrades. How much reduction? It’s estimated that a mid-sized automated warehouse could cost between £2-4 million, where RaaS breaks down that immense capital cost at the outset, making it much more possible to finance dark warehousing, and also giving the warehouse operator a chance to benefit from rapid changes in robotic technology by upgrading their robots rather than having to stick with the earlier models they purchased outright.


  • Cobots – Robot is the abbreviation for ‘collaborative robot’, a form of robotic tech that has been around for many years in manufacturing and has now become much more common in warehousing. Cobots work in tandem with human operatives and paces they are often seen in warehouse space are pick pack or pallet storage and palletising. Palletising is the are of placing products, usually but not always boxed, on pallets that may be shipping out to customers or entering the warehouse forCobots have several advantages in this role:


1 – they can stack in a desired pattern, without deviation, reducing waste space and ensuring better pallet symmetry

2 – they do not experience repetitive strain injury, which is common in warehouse personnel who regularly pack large items for pallet delivery

3 – they can work 24/7, no need for overtime or holidays.


  • Dense inventory – an accelerating trend, fulfilment centres have moved a long way from ‘just in time’ inventory to socking and stock-holding more products, and for longer. This means that inventory is moving from retail outlets into fulfilment centres, especially the so-called micro-fulfilment centres (MFCs): essentially tiny warehouses, whichcan be inside a retail centre, in a nearby building or inside a dark warehouse, being the only area of the space where human staff also have access, and that only to ‘collect and deliver’ the order from the MFC to the customer-facing kiosk, desk or parking area. Micro-fulfilment works seamlessly with ecommerce, and is especially good for businesses that have to build cheap and quick returns into their operations – such as clothing suppliers.


  • People – despite the fears, and the current concern around AI ‘stealing jobs’, certainly when it comes to warehousing, automation without people is almost impossible. While robots or cobots can undertake many tasks more effectively and more rapidly than humans can, human personnel are alway essential in three different areas: checking that work is being undertaken smoothly and sensibly (nobody wants Christmas wrapping paper after 24 December, but robots don’t know that!); adding value to warehousing such as personalising packaging and; adjusting robot activity to cope which changing circumstances (when hot weather strikes, warehouses need to bring forward the paddling pools and sideline the fluffy slippers, for example).


This last component of a dark warehouse shows the future for many warehouse personnel – roles are likely to become more varied, and more interesting, as forms of automation such as cobots enter many new warehouse spaces. As an example, Amazon, the leader in automated warehousing, says that in the decade since they began using robotics in their warehouses, they have added thousands of new jobs and even created more than 700 new job categories to allow dark warehousing to continue to grow and develop. It’s not so much robots v people as robots + people, when it comes to the dark warehouse.


Moving towards the dark warehouse


So if we accept that employees will continue to be integral to the activity of a dark warehouse, there are still several steps that need to be taken before any warehouse becomes darker.


First, warehouse management systems need to be fully integrated so that warehouse operators can fully understand their own operations and see where to improve efficiency and safety, which two elements also lead to increased productivity.


Second  step towards the overall darkening of a warehouse is the introduction of RFID readers or other hand-held devices, which start out by being human-operated automated devices and, through a series of evolutions can become autonomous data-gathering systems of their own. This first move towards automation can bee seen as ‘sensor’ technology – human operatives but automatic data-gathering and assessment; better accuracy leading to better prediction of need, all produced by technology.


In summary, while robotic hardware is the endpoint of a dark warehouse, there’s no doubt that  data-collection, utilisation and information-to-insight translation are all vital processes along the way to allow a warehouse to move towards degrees of automation, whether that be autonomous vehicles, cobots or full robotics.


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