Zebra Technologies

ROBOTICS for Efficient and Automated GOODS STORAGE

Warehouses: Status Quo 2023

Autonomous Mobile Robots

With the global annual increase in online trade of up to 50 percent, new warehouses will be needed. 55 percent of logistics decision-makers plan to build additional warehouse space in 2023. At the same time, there is a growing shortage of skilled workers. Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) are one solution to these challenges.

Daniel Dombach, Director T&L Industries EMEA at Zebra Technologies, talks about digital warehouses and AMRs in this interview.

Robotics powered by Zebra Technologies

Robotics powered by: Zebra Technologies

Warehouses are increasing in size and numbers. Another trend is near-shoring, the relocation of warehouse capacities to other European countries.

In the first pandemic year 2020-21, the number of warehouses in Germany increased by 10 percent. This is a continuation of a trend documented since 2018. The floor space per warehouse building is increasing at the same time. The flat distribution center with sorting, picking, packing and distribution functions on an enormously large floor area is becoming more widespread. The Amazon logistics center in Werne in North Rhine-Westphalia, completed in 2017, for example, has a footprint of 100,000 square meters. Warehouse buildings in Hamburg's Speicherstadt district, such as the M28 on Sandtorkai, on the other hand, cover just 4,188 square meters on six floors.

The ever larger warehouses are spatially concentrated in agglomerations with very good transport infrastructure. Highways, airports and seaports are the preferred transport routes.

In a 2022 survey of the logistics industry, 72 percent of decision-makers indicated that they wanted to expand their warehouse capacities due to increased online trade. 55 percent want to build more warehouses and 50 percent are looking for locations abroad.

In Central Europe, warehouse space in city centers and on greenfield sites is scarce. High-investment players are therefore buying or expanding their existing industrial warehouse space in Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania. Demand for vacant warehouse space is expected to increase by more than one million square meters each year. The Polish and Romanian markets are growing particularly rapidly, with demand almost doubling every year. Poland already acts as a gateway to Europe for trade from China.

The Netherlands continues its dominance in logistics. The "Randstad" metropolitan region in the western part of the Netherlands is home to the major ports of Amsterdam and Rotterdam and to Schiphol International Airport. This region is the center of logistics activities in Europe.

Newly constructed warehouses often have a higher level of automation than older buildings that are not designed for automation. Fully automated systems reduce operational costs and increase productivity. Errors are avoided, resources are conserved and accident hazards are minimized when the majority of warehouse operations are automated.

The Amazon Center in Werne, Germany

The Amazon Center in Werne, Germany is the size of 14 soccer fields.

Warehouse robotics

The warehouse robotics market is expected to reach a value of 23.09 billion USD by 2027 with a compound annual growth rate of 15.3 percent.

The order situation is excellent, but the shortage of skilled workers is high. Other problems are the digitalization backlog and the current high cost pressure.

The shortage of employees is increasing the pressure for digitization and automation

The shortage of employees is increasing the pressure for digitization and automation. Work in the warehouse imposes high physical demands. Heavy loads have to be lifted and long distances covered.

Since 2017, there has been a severe shortage of employees in warehouse logistics. According to the German Federal Employment Agency, there are 208 vacancies for skilled workers in logistics for every job seeker (as of February 2023). More than 55,000 truck drivers are being sought. The logistics and warehousing industry also has a high employee turnover rate. For permanent employees, it is 59.5 percent per year. Existing employees are often overworked. Logistics companies face the dual challenge of finding employees and then retaining them.

Rising demand due to the increase in online trade creates the need to convert to digital processes as quickly as possible. In the Warehouse Vision Study 2022, about a quarter (21 percent) of respondents indicated that they operate completely without digital data capture in the warehouse. All goods logistics here are paper- based. Decision-makers would like only five percent of processes to be paper-based by 2027. For 41 percent of them, improved mobility in the warehouse is the most important short-term goal.

Automation is possible if the process steps are available digitally. This would increase productivity and expand it to error-free operation 24/7. On the software side, inventory management, picking and transport can be automated in the goods management system (WMS). On the hardware side, extensive installations of conveyor technology, a system for digital goods registration – possibly with RFID – and transport vehicles are necessary. Autonomous vehicles and robots increase the efficiency of logistics operations enormously.

Due to rising inflation and the current geopolitical environment, energy costs in Europe have risen sharply in 2022. This is creating massive cost pressure for logistics companies, which they now need to reduce. Lighting in warehouses, for example, accounts for a significant proportion of energy consumption. LEDs save 80 percent of energy costs compared to halogen or fluorescent tubes. With the addition of necessary investments for digitization and automation, the cost pressure increases enormously.

Zebra Robotics Solutions

Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) in particular are helping to make logistics processes more productive and efficient. Trend analysts expect AMRs to replace autonomous vehicles (AGV) and forklifts in the coming years. With the acquisition of robotics specialist Fetch Robotics, Zebra has added numerous AMRs to the solution portfolio for warehouse logistics in 2021.

Zebra's FlexShelf series includes three different configurations of shelving on a mobile chassis measuring 61.1 x 52.8 centimeters. Crates and containers can be mounted at different heights as needed. FlexShelf ensures maximum accuracy and safety in inventory and picking operations. Pickers can move faster and take advantage of the unique pick-to-light and put-to-side features.

The FlexShelf robot features an interactive, glove-friendly touchscreen, an integrated barcode scanner and NFC reader, and a USB hub for connecting custom peripherals.

The CartConnect AMRs have a relatively small chassis.

They drive underneath crates, containers, cartons and smaller palletized loads weighing up to 272 kg that need to be moved, lift them and move them to the desired destination. Two 2D laser sensors and a 3D camera with 360° all-round vision are part of the equipment. The smaller round AMR CartConnect100 has a diameter of 57.3 centimeters and can turn on the spot. The CartConnect500 measures 145.2 x 102.5 centimeters and is used in particular for transporting small racks and pallets.

The AMR Freight500 and Freight1500 add the element 'load transport' to the possible AMR applications. The Freight500 is suitable for crates and smaller pallets weighing up to 500 kilograms, while the Freight1500 can transport pallets weighing up to 1,500 kilograms. Both are equipped with sensors and 3D cameras to prevent collisions. With these AMRs, the use of forklifts can be greatly reduced.

Inventories mean downtime and standstills. To avoid this, the TagSurveyor was created. It is a robot that automatically reads all RFID tags in the warehouse several times a day with high accuracy in real time. The TagSurveyor's reporting tools provide actionable insights into deviating inventory numbers.

The AMRs from Zebra & Fetch Robotics are versatile in warehouses. They assist skilled workers and allow the warehouse to be flexibly organized and scaled.

A FlexShelf on its way to the picker

A FlexShelf on its way to the picker. It will either pick something or place more items in the containers.

The TagSurveyor

The TagSurveyor reads tags on very high shelves from floor to ceiling.

The robotics product range from Zebra & Fetch Robotics

The robotics product range from Zebra & Fetch Robotics.

Robotics Use Cases

The CartConnect100

The CartConnect100 moves towards a pick-up zone where two racks are ready for onward transport.

The American electronics manufacturer Waytek experienced a huge increase in orders in 2020. The existing conveyor system in the warehouse proved insufficient to handle the demand. Waytek commissioned several CartConnect100s and associated material trolleys, and implemented the FetchCore Enterprise software. 13 percent of the floor space was freed up as AMRs save a lot of space compared to conveyors. Daily throughput increased by 25 percent.

Wärtsilä's 37,000-square-meter central distribution center in Kampen, the Netherlands, contains more than 85,000 individual items.

The VirtualConveyor material transport solution and AMRs from Fetch Robotics were introduced into the warehouse workflow to simplify point-to-point material transportation. The AMRs took over the repetitive tasks of transporting goods. The solution saved distribution center employees more than 30 walking kilometers per day. Their productivity increased and they are able to focus on more rewarding and fulfilling tasks.

Austin Lighthouse in Texas is a nonprofit organization that provides training and employment for people with visual impairments. 250 of the 450 employees are blind.

The warehouse processes 500,000 orders per year. 20 truckloads arrive daily. With increasing competitive pressure, it became necessary to increase the processing speed for orders. The CartConnect100 was recommended because of its special accessibility features such as text-to-speech RFID handhelds that can be connected, a voice system for picking boxes, and custom sounds for robot pathing.

Productivity has been increased by 2.5 times and employees now have less walking distance to cover.

Ryder System, Inc. is an American logistics company. Rising labor costs and growing customer expectations necessitated changes in picking and transporting orders in 2020. The solution was on-demand warehouse automation that was flexible enough to be up and running within hours and adaptable to different workflows in smart warehouses.

Ryder uses the Freight1500 and HMIShelf and was able to achieve a 25 percent increase in productivity and 20 percent time savings just by reducing travel times in the warehouse.

The Freight1500

The Freight1500 is loaded by a warehouse operator and then moves the goods to the location determined by software.

Acceptance of Robots

Cleaner robot as a service robot

22 percent of households in Germany used a vacuum cleaner robot as a service robot in 2022.

The Roboter P-Care

The P-Care robot helps people with support needs in their daily lives and assists caregivers.

Complete collaboration, in which humans and robots work hand in hand, is not yet possible. Currently, robots and humans cooperate, which means they perform separate work steps from each other. For example, an AMR that is to be used in the warehouse can only perform tasks after it has been prepared for the task by humans.

"It takes 15 minutes to set up the map that the robot uses as a basis for navigation," explains Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, in an interview. The robot is driven through the warehouse with a joystick.

The robot's laser sensors register objects that immediately appear on the map and are assigned to different zones by operators. It is possible to define zones that the AMR should not enter, zones with speed limits and unloading points. The map is complete when the warehouse circuit is finished. According to Wise, three additional days would have to be planned for the training of the robot and the employees.

Robots that assist with physically heavy work have the highest level of acceptance.

70 percent of respondents in a study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO) and Statista indicated that robots should perform heavy physical work alone in the future. The statement that robots should perform repetitive tasks on their own also received high approval ratings (39 percent). Collaboration between humans and robots can be imagined by 52 percent of respondents in the field of 'creativity and problem solving'. Communication and teamwork are perceived to be the least important tasks for robots.

Service robots are widely used in industry and in private households. In industry, they provide support primarily in intralogistics and production. AMRs are generally considered to be service robots. In private households, robots are mainly used for vacuum cleaning and lawn mowing.

Nursing robots are very well known and controversially discussed. They are intended to be an aid for skilled personnel and to contribute to increasing the quality of life of residents in nursing homes. Safety standards for robots, which are very important in this context, are defined by the ISO working group ISO/TC 299 "Robotics". Robots with a humanoid appearance are mainly found in this field.


Digitization and automation are very smart answers

AMRs from Zebra assist in warehouses. Anja Van Bocxlaer, Editor-in-Chief, RFID & Wireless IoT Global talks to Daniel Dombach about the concerns of logistics experts and whether robotics is an answer to the most pressing questions in the industry.

Daniel Dombach is Director T&L Industries EMEA at Zebra Technologies Zebra Technologies

Some of the warehouses are still operated traditionally and paper-based. According to the current Warehouse Vision Study 2022, this share amounts to 21 percent. A large part of the work processes takes place there analogously. Growth and scaling are difficult to achieve, because digitization is the prerequisite for all further optimization steps.

Furthermore, outdated software and management systems are used, which are difficult for employees to operate. For younger employees and digital natives, this contributes to the lack of attractiveness of jobs in warehouse logistics.

Massively. Only when all workflows are captured with digital technology and all data recorded, can visibility in the supply chain be guaranteed. Without digital instruments, neither the provision of information about the stock nor the storage location of specific goods is possible.

I see this as a big problem because it affects the quality of customer service. Without digitalization, the short delivery times to which customers are accustomed today cannot be achieved. And long delivery times can directly prevent a purchase. Employee retention remains a problem.

One solution for this is new mobile devices. They have a larger scope of services, are easier for employees to use and ultimately contribute to employee satisfaction. This counteracts the high fluctuation rates in the warehouse. Robots also play an important role.

Warehouse workers are afraid of losing their jobs when it comes to robots. However, in the Warehouse Vision Study 2022, the majority of employees (81 percent) support the use of robots if they help to improve the daily work routine and workflows, if they take on physically heavy work and relieve them of travel distances. This way, employees can take on more complex tasks that require different competencies. In this respect, robots support employee satisfaction and employee retention.

Certainly. Skilled workers are always needed in the warehouse. Even if everything is highly automated and robots can and are allowed to do more than what is possible today, there is still a need for personnel to maintain the robots, to take over control and planning, as well as communication and tasks in team leading. This is why there will always be people working in the warehouse.

I don't think so. For years, most logistics companies have been working on the verge of overload. Decision makers are asking themselves how they can improve their processes so that they work faster, more efficiently, more accurately and on a good cost basis. The growth in e-commerce has exacerbated this situation.

If e-commerce continues to grow as it has in recent years, and this will most likely be the case, then digitization and automation are very smart answers.

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