Director, National Valuation
t: +44 207 182 2663 Ben.Thomas@cbre.com
Senior Analyst, National Valuation
t: +44 207 182 2683 Judy.Zhu@cbre.com
When we talk about robotics, futuristic images of the Terminator, Robocop or Wall-E may may come to mind. But in reality robotics technologies are already present in our daily life. As we mentioned in the last post “Can blockchain change logistics property?”, the technology of blockchain and robotics can be used in warehouses to fully automate the operations.
In this post, we are going to look at the application of robotics in logistics warehouse and the potential impact.
Robots in Warehouses
The most efficient robots have no regard for appearance but focus on efficiency and function instead. In an industrial environment, any machine that is autonomous and intelligent, which means it can perform different tasks dynamically without external control, is considered a robot.
Robots can be used in every stage of the warehouse cycle, with a typical process flow highlighted below.
- Loading/ Unloading
Specific robots are developed for loading and unloading. They are typically designed to carry heavy goods and can be located near loading docks or inside lorries. They may look like pallet lifts or have strong suction cups to load or unload goods.
There several different types of robots to help move goods within a warehouse. They are mostly on wheels, and may have a conveyor belt or a tilting flat top to move goods. AI within the robots enables them to move intelligently and work together. The best example of this is swarm robots which can move goods of different sizes more dynamically.
A combination of in-built sensors and a central control system allows the robots in the same warehouse to operate in the most efficient way as a whole, while avoiding walls, racking, humans and each other.
Generally, there are two forms of picking robot. Piece picking robots can be stationary or mobile and they are most likely to have sensors and scanners to identify products and their shapes. They are intelligent enough to get the location information of an item and decide how to pick it. They may have suction cups or grippers.
The second form is a collaborative robot or “cobot”, which works alongside humans in picking stock. For example, a robot may lift and move a cage filled with small items to human pickers, allowing them to move less and work more efficiently.
Robotics technology is already widely used in packing. In a logistics warehouse, robots can be used to make boxes, pick and put the correct items in, add any cushioning then seal and address.
This all comes together in JD.com’s recently opened and fully automated warehouse. In this warehouse, no human hands touch the stock from the moment it arrives to when it leaves the unit, as seen in the video below:
Potential Impact of Robotics
- Impact on Workforce
There is a fear that robots will make many jobs redundant. However, it also brings opportunity and in some cases employment may remain unchanged or even increase. The reasons being:
- The demand for high-skilled workforce may increase as robotics replaces areas of manual labour for low skilled repetitive work the demand for programmers and on-site engineers should increase.
- Lower production costs can run through into consumer pricing which has the potential to increase demand. Even if some employees are replaced by robots, the increase in demand may feed through to requiring more staff in other areas and so the total employment may end up unchanged.
An example of this is Vullings Metaalbewerking in the Netherlands who uses robotics in the manufacture of their speakers. Production volumes increased and they took on more staff as a result.
- Impact on Industrial
Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality and other cutting-edge technologies have been used to bring industrial production to a new level, sometimes referred to as ‘Industrial 4.0’. While this is nothing new to the automotive industry, other sectors are now following suit to improve their productivity.
In Dongguan City, one of the electronics manufacturing hubs in China, many firms have automated all or part of their production lines in recent years. Production rates and the quality of products subsequently increased. One mobile phone part manufacturer in Dongguan, after automating the manufacturing line, tripled their production while reducing their defect rate from 25% to below 5%.
Robotics technology will be used more frequently in logistics warehouses. Inevitably, this will bring changes to the industry and while some will embrace it there will also be caution and fear around its impact on the workforce. This worry is nothing new and the previous three industrial revolutions, from steam to electricity and then to electronics, have always been met with opposition in some quarters. However, once the benefits were clear, the technology was mastered and a workforce with new skills grew around them. Change is coming and as history has proven it is better to embrace and adapt rather than fear and resist.