Innovation & Future

Warehouse automation: robots take over the work

Robots have long been a common feature in logistics. But what do these autonomous, mobile assistants do in specific terms? And what might happen in future? A report

Autonomous vehicles, robot arms, stackers that lift pallets by themselves … Solutions like these symbolise Logistics 4.0. And they are booming. The sale of mobile, autonomous robots for logistics processes in industry and e-commerce rose by 42 percent to 75,000 units in 2019 compared to the previous year, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). The sector association is forecasting sales of 259,000 items by 2023 – an ongoing annual increase of at least 40 percent. The figures illustrate that the automation of processes in logistics is gaining momentum. These practical examples show how robots are already making the work in our sector easier and more efficient.

It is 3 p.m. on a Wednesday at a warehouse operated by Rhenus Warehousing Solutions in Dortmund. Employees dressed in blue working jackets are moving large and small cartons and blue boxes on pallets between the high shelves using stackers. One stacker stands out from the rest – it is moving without a driver. It automatically knows where the right shelf for the pallet from incoming goods is located. It manoeuvres it into slots that are up to ten metres high, as if by magic. It then goes back to the incoming goods area, carefully avoids hitting its human colleagues and picks up the next pallet.

An intelligent solution for the bottleneck

The Autopilot RAE 200 reach stacker from Toyota Material Handling has been in service at Dortmund since the end of October 2018. This reach stacker can lift pallets higher than any other in Germany – to 10.80 metres. It can transport up to 20 pallets per hour and put into storage or restack as many as 1,000 items every day. It has a 360-degree personnel protection system to prevent it from hitting the other employees. It recognises the correct storage space for each pallet with the help of a vision system sensor and through its link to the Warehouse Management System. 

David Labusek is the Project Manager for Technical Purchasing at Rhenus Contract Logistics. He explains, “The incoming goods area is the bottleneck at the warehouse. We have a huge number of full pallets arriving here in Dortmund. Storing them on the top shelves requires a great deal of skill and concentration. We decided to purchase the autonomous reach stacker to ease the pressure on our employees.”

A recipe for success

The reach stacker is not the first of its kind. David Labusek and Ralf Markwart, Head of the Technical Department for Purchasing Industrial Trucks at Rhenus Contract Logistics, are responsible for developing and introducing this innovative technology. Their first project for a driverless transport system involved an autonomously guided vehicle (AGV) manufactured by Jungheinrich, which has been in service at a warehouse site in Minden since 2016. The employees provide instructions for the AGV via the transport management system at the incoming goods section. From there, it transports the goods to the handover point at the high-shelf warehouse. The AGV manages to handle as many as 230 pallet movements every day.

„The employees know that the new technology supports them in their daily work, but in no way replaces them.“
Ralf Markwart | Head of the Technical Department for Purchasing Industrial Trucks at Rhenus Contract Logistics

“Acceptance by the employees is particularly important to ensure the success of this kind of project. That’s why they were involved in it from the outset and know that the new technology supports them in their daily work, but in no way replaces them,” says Ralf Markwart. Alongside the two stackers, two other autonomous solutions are being tested and five more are in the planning stage. They not only involve industrial trucks, but also cleaning and outdoor sweeping robots.

The warehouse of the future

There are many different approaches to make work at logistics warehouses safer and save time and costs. Rhenus Warehousing Solutions launched its own initiative for this in 2016 and it has set itself the goal of designing the warehouse of the future. “These solutions are not necessarily automated or digital,” Theresia Teigelkamp, Innovation Manager at Rhenus Warehousing Solutions, explains. “Each warehouse is different and we’re always guided by the local circumstances, what is required by our customers or by the goods and the way that our employees work.”

Small assistants

Several successful projects have all already grown out of this innovation initiative. Rhenus has a warehouse in the Polish town of Swarzędz near Poznań measuring 50,000 square metres; it handles 18,000 shipments for online and mail order companies every day. The distances walked by the employees every day between the shelves with the goods and the packing station have been reduced by 800 metres each time since 2018. Once the shipments have been put together, small robot vehicles known as effibots have been automatically transporting the shipments to the next point since that time. “Thanks to this support, the employees can assemble shipments more simply and faster,” Theresia Teigelkamp explains.

Effibots in use

Live impressions from the warehouse: press a button and the robot comes!

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The warehouse professionals

An automated warehouse system was put into service in the Netherlands in April 2019. An aluminium grid with 21,000 containers and covering an area measuring 1,000 square metres was set up in the warehouse in Tilburg, which has 60,000 square metres of storage space. 19 robots are responsible for storing and picking high-value products for various sectors and customers here. The AutoStore system from Swisslog is connected to the Rhenus Warehouse Management System and the Transport Management System. The robots stack the containers directly on top of each other and transport them to three picking stations. As a result, the AutoStore system in the warehouse not only reduces the distances that employees have to walk, but also saves space because of its compact structure.

“By making existing processes more efficient through modern technologies, we can remain competitive in the long term,” Theresia Teigelkamp emphasises. “When integrating the systems, we always make our employees our major focus. Our solutions are designed to help them complete their daily tasks even more efficiently. Other projects, which we’re currently working on, illustrate this too: work with picking gloves and inventory drones will make this work even easier in future.”

A provisional appraisal

There is no doubt that the examples from the Rhenus Group show that robots make daily work easier and increase efficiency. This is therefore a clear win-win situation - for the company, for the employees - and finally for the customers.

Further information

Study: How digitalisation is a success story in the logistics sector

A study by the management consultancy company, PwC, provides some exciting insights into this topic

To the website

 

Facts & Figures: Global statistics about industry and service robots

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) provides all you need to know about the current state of robotics in our world.

Statistical annual reports, policy papers, case studies and more:

To the website

Fit for automating processes?

Learn more about the innovations of the Rhenus Group.

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