LocusBots from U.S.-based Locus Robotics, for example, are self-guiding vehicles that navigate autonomously around a warehouse carrying standard plastic tote bins. A display on the bot tells nearby warehouse associates what to pick for each bin, and a scanner confirms each item as it is loaded. By allowing workers to spend more time picking and less walking the aisles, Locus says that its system can double worker productivity. And the system handles demand variability too. When the warehouse is quiet, workers follow the fleet of bots through the facility, picking from one area at a time. At busy times, workers stay in fixed zones, and the bots come to them. Locus Robotics says that another key benefit of its system is its ability to integrate with existing warehouse operations with no need to reconfigure the racking or install fixed infrastructure.
Other advances in warehouse technology rely on digital intelligence rather than robotic muscle. DHL has partnered with leading technology companies including Cisco and Nokia to install internet-of-things technology in warehouses in Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and the U.S. These facilities use a number of different approaches, including wireless tracking technology to monitor the movement of forklift trucks and personnel through the warehouses in real time. The data collected can reveal opportunities for efficiency improvements, such as areas within the facility that suffer congestion at peak times or layouts that force associates to take circuitous routes to commonly visited areas.
Other players in the sector are ripping up the conventional rulebook entirely. U.K.-based online grocery Ocado, for example, opened a new customer fulfillment center in Andover, U.K., last year. The facility contains a three-story-high aluminum grid in which grocery items are stored in stacks of crates. A fleet of 1,100 robots moves over the grid on a 112-kilometer network of rails, lifting crates from the stack and delivering them to pick stations were employees assemble customer orders. At full speed, the center is designed to process 65,000 customer orders per week. The British company has signed agreements to supply similar technology to a number of other retailers worldwide.