Advanced 3D software and autonomous mobile robots bring order to changing SKU mixes
Mobile robots and advanced 3D software are revolutionizing material handling, or, as Larry Sweet puts it: “This is not your father’s storage retrieval system.”
Mr. Sweet, chief technology officer for Symbotic, made his comments at the RoboBusiness Leadership Summit in Pittsburgh, where he and Chris Ray, Hartness International’s robotics technical director, discussed industrial robot solutions for warehousing and distribution operations.
One of the challenges of traditional material handling with automated storage retrieval systems includes the breaking down and singularity of palletizing, particularly with different packaging styles, said Mr. Ray.
“Mixed-order de-palletizing is particularly difficult,” said Mr. Ray.
Helping to solve that challenge is Symbotic.
Most warehouse operations continue to use people to select cases and build the pallet, with the top individuals able to move about 150 cases an hour, said Mr. Sweet. “It is a very demanding job with a very high turnover rate. We needed to find a way to have the robot do more of the work faster and with greater efficiency.”
The end result was the development by Symbotic of intelligent supply network automation that relies on mobile autonomous rovers for use in a warehouse and distribution environment.
“Warehouses are generally highly inflexible. They have high capital and operating costs and take up space. To retrofit an existing building to meet a changing SKU mix would mean changing the business model,” Mr. Sweet said. “Mobile robots change everything that was negative into a positive.”
Sequencing was the biggest challenge, incorporating truck loading, robot palletizing and batching for individual customer orders. Using advanced software producing 3D storage topology allows the robot to be programmed to build pallets designed to specific stacking roles, enabling cases to be picked from a storage structure and delivered in a specific sequence.
“This system solves the puzzle for building a pallet. It is like the children’s game of pick-up sticks in reverse,” said Sweet.
The systems are scalable to levels allowing hundreds of rovers to deliver thousands of cases per hour, with no humans involved in the handling of any product on the warehouse shelves.
“We have seen great labor-saving efficiency in allowing the human operators to work with the robots. In any automation system, the bigger the warehouse, the bigger the savings that will be achieved,” said Mr. Sweet.
Symbotic’s system was initially deployed in the grocery and food service industry, but is now moving into broader retail sectors.