Ours is a trying time for technophobes, and for them the future must look bleak. For technophiles, on the other hand, everyday must be like Christmas. The world has embraced computers and automation, and our contact with them is becoming increasingly intimate and subtle. They are in our purses and our pockets, on our wrists, and even in our shoes. They record our heartbeats, send and receive intimate messages to our loved ones, and are relied on to get to us to work and to make our jobs easier, more engaging, and even possible sometimes.
A study by research firm LogisticsIQ predicts that, by 2025, warehouse automation will be a $27 billion industry – a CAGR of 11.7%. A second study, by Mordor Intelligence, looked at logistics automation and predicted a CAGR of 12.1% over the next six years and a market value of $107.84 billion by 2025. Looking at industrial automation more broadly, a study by Fortune Business Insights published in November, 2019, predicts that global industrial automation will show a CAGR of 8.4% and reach a value of $296.7 billion by 2026.
Increasingly, this rise of machines in warehouse operations is meant less to replace people and more to augment our abilities. Software that gamifies otherwise boring tasks, collaborative robots (cobots), and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) are all employed to augment people and allow them to perform their tasks at a higher level.
At PeakLogix, our mission isn’t just to help facilities integrate automation. It’s to help businesses accelerate their growth by helping them plan their investments in a way that maximizes their returns. To do this, we not only need to know the best solutions in the market today – we need to know what the likeliest solutions will be in the coming years.
In this article, we want to share some of the trends analysts are predicting will control or transform the market in the next half decade.
AGVs and AMRs
Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) have two big things going for them. First, as with nearly all automation, they are scalable. Second, they require little to no change in a facility’s infrastructure. It’s this second part that really tips them over the scales in terms of potential impact.
The report from LogisticsIQ referenced above predicts that this segment of automation will see a CAGR of 35% in the next five years, and control 15% of the market of all warehouse automation.
Other automation – for example, the gold standard AS/RS – often require drastic changes to a facility’s floorplan. Those solutions might include installing new racking with narrower aisles, masts, cranes, and other machinery. In the right facilities, these changes will eventually pay for themselves – but only in the right facilities, and only after a period of years.
AGVs and AMRs, on the other hand, operate within a facility’s existing floorplan. They are far less expensive than some other options, and training for operators working with and around these machines is minimal. Their designs are varied in order to maximize their usefulness in a variety of material-handling environments, and they can be programmed in countless ways to do countless tasks.
Moreover, an organization can buy a single machine and reap the benefits it yields. As that machine helps the facility increase its accuracy and throughput, the system can be reinvested in, and a second or third AGV bought, or some other aspect of the facility improved.
Because of the nature of the tasks involved, order picking is still largely a manual process. Robots don’t do well with a variety of SKUs and packaging, and the trends we’ve seen in online shopping aren’t going to do them any favors. Continued growth in e-commerce, and the online grocery market in particular, is only going to increase, which will further drive up the demand for same-day shipping and even same-day delivery.
In turn, this will place greater demands on operators for both speed and accuracy. The only way to achieve the kinds of numbers needed – at least over the next 5 years – will be to augment operators with the best available automation.
While there are companies trying to solve the puzzle of fully automating the picking process, over the next five years we don’t see automation supplanting humans except in limited cases – with a small number of SKUs and highly advanced systems, for example.
What is predicted is that more and more businesses will rely on goods-to-person systems. Picking is the most labor-intensive component of the supply chain, and changing to a goods-to-person system is often one of the most cost-effective enhancements a facility can make. It decreases the amount of time operators spend in the picking process, while maximizing the time they spend doing what robots don’t do well – selecting and sorting items quickly.
Sometime in the early 2020’s, Moore’s Law – the idea that computing becomes both exponentially faster and less expensive – is expected to end as the energy needed to cool microchips exceeds the amount of energy that passes through the chips.
Nevertheless, computing and software will continue to improve. In the past, developers could write imperfect code and trust that next year’s computers would be able to handle whatever problems existed within the code. With the ending of Moore’s Law, that won’t be the case, and we expect software to improve drastically. We especially look to advances in machine learning to improve operations within the industry.
Algorithms driven by machine learning have already changed the way warehouses and distribution centers function. They are excellent at pinpointing flaws in a system and looking for better solutions. They are able to analyze and improve all of the key functions of a warehouse, including supplier efficiencies, inventory management, the processing of items, the safety of those processes, the maintenance of equipment, and outbound freight charges.
Management, mobility, and gamification
In the 20th century, warehouse and distribution center managers spent the vast majority of their day in the office writing schedules and crunching numbers.
However, it’s no secret that the more time managers spend out of their offices, the more productive and accurate their facility becomes.
The improvements in this area that we expect to see in the next few years will happen because of the improvements in software we mentioned earlier. As big data continues to drive the growth in our industry, we will see this bleed into how managers spend their day.
Today’s algorithms already write schedules and do a better job of crunching numbers than any manager ever did. As those algorithms improve, more and more apps will be written so that the phones and even wearable tech that managers already carry will be able to alert them to issues in a facility. Not only will they be unchained from their desks, but they will also be directed to hot spots where they can see problems and successes. Their presence in key areas at key times will further drive growth.
At the same time, similar software is already being implemented for the workforce. In 2019, Amazon famously rolled out software in several of its distribution centers that added aspects of a video game to the job of order picking.
Gamification – adding elements of a game or sport, such as keeping score – can increase both productivity and morale. It allows people who may never see each other in their workday to interact in a competitive, fun way. It takes tasks that might otherwise be prone to errors because of the operator’s boredom and lets the operator feel they are working for something more immediate and entertaining than a quarterly number in a stock index.
Collaborative robots (cobots)
Collaborative robots (cobots), in their first iterations, were really load-handling assistants or force multipliers. They worked to make people stronger.
With improvements in software, hardware, and machining, robots are able to navigate an environment autonomously. At the same time, they have sensors and safety mechanisms that allow them to work near and even with people.
Many collaborative robots are “force limited.” They have force torque sensors that, when overloaded, stop the machine from operating to reduce impact. Other cobots rely on systems of lasers or other visual input that allow them to work alongside people.
In a warehouse environment, cobots may be the element in the picking process that brings product from a pick face to a packing station. Not only does this save operators from having to make that trek through the warehouse, but cobots can be programmed to move more quickly than an average person would. Speeds aren’t just increased, but that increase can be compounded by tweaking how these machines operate compared to their human counterparts.
Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)
The Internet of Things is really a misnomer, and would be more appropriately – though less catchily – titled “The Interconnectedness of Things Via the Internet.” It is the networking of devices – such as a refrigerator and a cell phone – in order to make life easier.
The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is the networking of industrial devices. It is what allows a fleet of “autonomous” mobile robots to act as though they are autonomous – and to appear to be autonomous – when in reality they are largely controlled by a warehouse management system. The local control of many of these machines is in their safety features.
Largely thanks to big data and machine learning, a WMS can receive real-time data on systems of powered conveyors, sortation devices, roaming AGVs, automated label printers and applicators, et al. The WMS can see where each of these devices is in the process of fulfilling myriad orders, and enable them all to work in unison and alongside a workforce of people.
Computing has advanced to the stage where the actions of all these disparate parts can be predicted with high enough accuracy that a single program can guide them all – as long as they are all connected.
A unifying thread
Discerning readers will have noticed that, while this article had 6 trends, they really all talked about the same thing; how an increased adoption of warehouse automation solutions will continue to dominate growth in the industry.
Automation is a must for customer fulfillment.
LogisticsIQ perhaps said it best: “Automation is a must for customer fulfillment.” What that automation looks like will be different for each business. Large distribution centers with very high throughputs will need holistic solutions. But with the increasingly scalable solutions hitting the market, even small warehouses or manufacturers will need to optimize their fulfillment processes or they will be outperformed by their competitors who do.