Using Collaborative Robots to increase Warehousing and Inventory Productivity

Automation in industry and in our world in general is often met with incredulity when first conceptualised, followed by experimentation, a level of success with the experimentation, incorporation and then gradual naturalisation into our 'way of being' or doing things. The smartphones of today would have seemed like magic, or a bit of hocus pocus 20 years ago.

In our new era of advanced artificial intelligence, there are many theories around machines superseding man, some well into the sci-fi genre (for now) and some very much more grounded in seeming 'reality'. However, there are some areas that are more practical, where automation just makes a lot of sense, in terms of increased efficiency, accuracy and human working conditions!

Practical automation

Warehouse picking automation is one of these. Not quite as glamourous or mysterious as some of the other automation theories and tests being conducted, but with a solidly practical outcome. Several companies, such as Walmart, DHL, ADASA and PINC Solutions have recently tested out prototypes of 'collaborative robots' for warehouse picking and stock inventory purposes.

Collaborative robots in warehousing

A collaborative robot has sensors that follow a warehouse picker's movements, moving and halting along with the picker, so they can stack the orders either in cubby holes or until a certain weight is reached. Once the robot has the required goods or the weight limit is reached, a push of a button sends the robot to the final processing area, and another robot arrives in its place, as the picker continues.

The warehouse picker can then enjoy working with their hands free, without having to push or operate heavy pallets, and journey to and fro to the final processing area. The proliferation of online shopping and high numbers of smaller inventories means that efficiency in this area is crucial for these types of online order fulfilment companies.

It is clear that this type of system saves time and greatly improves human picker efficiency, but at what cost? It remains to be seen whether the automation has enough of an effect on ROI to be widely adopted, and at what speed, but the benefits are fairly obvious.

Michael Artinger, Site Manager for DHL Supply Chain reported on their recent experiment thus: "The picking cart follows the picker through the rack system. Once it reaches full capacity, the picker simply sends it to the designated drop-off location, while another picking cart joins. This solution makes moving from single to multi-order picking a more efficient and ergonomic process".

Drones for stock inventory

Another seeming 'no brainer' in terms of using automated robots in supply chain functions is the capability to use drones for stock inventory. Based on each product having a tagging or barcoding system, the drones fly around with antennae, picking up each and every item where it is, supplying a full inventory of stock in a warehouse or retail outlet in a fraction of the time, and with increased accuracy. Termed 'flying inventory assistants', these drones can operate with independent navigation and inventory administration, potentially cutting down what would have previously taken one month, down to one day.

Unlike the rules and regulations that currently govern outdoor drone flying applications, which are 'up in the air' in most countries, indoor applications in enclosed and defined environments are easier to work with. Read our article about drones here.

Consider your working world

So, zombie apocalypse and the threat of robots taking over the world aside, there are many ways to deploy some robotic friends into a business to improve efficiency, accuracy, human working conditions and profits. It is worth considering how your organisation can benefit!

Have an opinion? Share it with us, and at the same time, you can make sure your career is heading in the right direction, or nab that top-notch candidate you need to ensure your business operates at the best efficiency that our fast-paced technology allows.

Tech-Pro is the unrivalled market leader in the placement of South African Supply Chain Professionals. Visit or call +27 11 514 0463