One of the major adoptions of technology in the warehousing front is the inclusion of Robotics Technology.

Companies are now loaded with enormous amounts of information coming from suppliers and customers in many locations This information includes pricing and labor contracts to tax documents and more. This makes critical information difficult to produce quickly and error-free due to the lack of personnel and time constraints.

Supply chain automation has the potential to help businesses keep pace with distribution challenges and consumer demand. Up until now, robots had been fixed, blind, and rather unintelligent. They did not have the complexity and dexterity that the supply chain required. The new generation of robots are very different. They are not as heavy as they used to be but are easier to program with great progress in grip and sensor technologies. With the introduction of micro-technology, we are finally starting to see automation become a reality in the supply chain.

An AGV, as the industry knows it, is a portable robot that navigates itself through floor markers (stickers), wires, magnets, lasers, or cameras. As warehouse vehicles, their job is to move materials around the facility.

They use machine learning and deep learning to program themselves onto their designated paths and related processes. These vehicles are proving to be the safest alternative to material handling by warehouse clerks (for labor intensive and repetitive tasks). 
As AGV technology evolves, even the smallest of warehouses and distribution centers will be able to afford it.

Using robots, a supply chain manager can connect and automate sales, forecasting, inventory refill, inventory scheduling, purchasing, manufacturing and distribution actions in a seamless system. It is another link between software and advanced automation that directs automated guided vehicles (AGV) to retrieve orders while tracking inventory levels in instantaneously.

Robots have the capability to terminate activity if they touch anything unexpected. Therefore, they can be safely used alongside an existing workforce This means that they are especially suitable for picking and co-packing.

The rapid explosion in the number of connected, intelligent things has given this trend a huge boost. Robots, drones or autonomous vehicles enable new business scenarios and optimize existing ones. Autonomous things are often physical devices operating in the real world, such as robots carrying out jobs in a coordinated fashion to create a seamless and connected process in manufacturing facilities or by using drones for inventory quality assurance through taking images with the drone’s camera to reduce time for inventory checks.

Labor reductions seem the most likely drivers, but improvements in overall output and productivity will be the primary value, regardless of whether labor is reduced.
The integration of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) with multiple mobile, wearable, IoT and sensor-rich environments and conversational platforms will extend immersive applications beyond isolated and single-person experiences.

The modern supply chain is witnessing warehouse automation in the form of various autonomous driving vehicles like automated stackers, forklifts, pallet trucks, and small rack carrying robots.

There are 4 major advantages that auto guided vehicles can add to the warehouse:

Reduced Costs: These can work 24/7 and on-demand, thus eliminating the need for training and exhaustion in the case of humans. Also, while they provide a steady speed, they require low maintenance.

Increased Productivity and Precision:  The ability to integrate with AS/RS, WMS, and sensor technology makes these vehicles accurate. They work at a consistent speed, thus making material handling time-efficient, consistent, and less prone to errors.

Safety: These vehicles are the safest bet for material handling around the facility, preventing warehouse clerks from performing tasks that can cause injury or physical exhaustion, apart from product damage. They can be designated safe paths. Even if the path is a highly used one, the AGV sensor on the vehicle directs it to slow down or stop as it senses its proximity to objects or people.

Flexibility: Autonomous vehicles can be integrated with warehouse management systems, Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems, conveyors, etc. Also, their mobility prevents them from being a permanent obstacle.

Automated guided vehicles are becoming integral parts of warehouses and distributions centers. Growth and innovation are consistent, with expectation of more growth for a few years to come.

With an increasing number of warehouses and distribution centers adopting this technology, we find it safe to say that AGVs are crossing the Chasm with Early Adopters on their side. There will be mass adoption in the coming years.

Automated guided vehicle manufacturers like Swisslog, Fetch Robotics, JBT, Savant, etc., are making constant innovation to add value to these enablers, making material handling more efficient, productive, and safe.

Gartner also suggests that it is expected to reach the Plateau of Productivity in more than 10 years, implying that we may still have some time to explore the viability of adopting autonomous vehicles in the warehouse.

Technavio analysts forecast that the global market for AGVs is expected to grow at a CAGR of more than 9% through 2017-2021.

While the initial investment on autonomous vehicles may be too hefty right now, with constant innovation, the cost will become increasingly affordable for even small warehouses and distribution centers.

Supply chain robots are different from traditional automation tools in that they computerize the complete business process, rather than use a limited, individual job method. They coordinate a complete integrated process, allowing the different sections to work together.

As an example, if the robot detects that a warehouse is full because there is no inventory movement, it automatically alerts the purchasing department and halts ordering, or it transfers inventory to a new storage location if one is available.

Supply chain managers can use a dashboard to determine that the current warehouse stockpile of a certain item is below the required reorder levels. The dashboard facilitates an instant dissection of the overall process chain. Without delay, the manager can identify the problem, such as a delayed order from a major supplier’s factory. Warehouse automation is based on motion planning and computer vision, allowing for industrial robots to be autonomous and work intelligently. Industrial robots pick, transfer and pack boxes. Other robots transport the boxes around to loading docks and trucks.

Autonomous mobile robots can eliminate a lot of unnecessary walking. Because of improvements in sensors, artificial intelligence and mobility, these robots can be deployed practically anywhere. These robots normally carry carts and are programmed to travel flexible routes in the warehouse in order to move product between workers and stations, eliminating walking which represents half of the picking time.

Platform based logistics solutions aids the forklift to know when goods are arriving and where they will be stored. The forklift can then calculate the loading procedure, find the best route, work in partnership with other forklifts, and send verification of location and movement to the ERP system.

Autonomous mobile robots present new scenarios for inventory monitoring. Combined with RFID tagged products and equipment, these robots can perform their own inventory sweeps autonomously at pre-determined schedules. The robot can identify storage and placement problems that could lead to inefficient movements of machinery or people, as well as identify goods that are nearing expiration date.

The profitable companies of the future will be those that can adapt to the change in sourcing, production and distribution that are happening today, and are flexible enough to take advantage of new technologies.

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