Warehouse automation is nothing new; it goes back as far as 120 years, to the first conveyors, while automated storage and retrieval systems were first deployed in the 1950s.
But with robotics beginning to feature more heavily than ever, many of today’s warehouses can have a sci-fi vibe.
A recent Gartner supply chain study found that deployment of mobile robots is expected to move faster than that of drones, because the technology is more established – and it is warehouses that are the main area of deployment for such robots.
The report, Hype Cycle for Mobile Robots and Drones, shows that around three-quarters of companies plan on using some type of robotic warehouse automation. Gartner also says machine learning will become mainstream over the next five years, creating greater demand both for mobile robots and drones.
Standardised automation software is also a factor driving robotics, says the report, with so-called multi-agent orchestration platforms increasing in 2023.
Dwight Klappich is a Research Vice President and Gartner Fellow in Gartner's Logistics and Customer Fulfilment team. His research focuses on the strategic role logistics plays in leading-edge supply chain management organisations. He is a recognised authority on logistics technologies.
Upon the publication of the report, Klappich said that workplace challenges are fuelling the adoption of automation within supply chains, “and it’s likely there will be thousands more mobile robots working in supply chains over the next three years”.
He added: “Labour shortages and challenges retaining talent – coupled with technology advances such as machine learning and AI – will continue to drive adoption of smart robots. By 2027, more than 75% of companies will have adopted some form of cyber-physical automation in their warehouse operations.”
Of drones, Gartner’s report says that, while increasingly in use, they are being deployed in more targeted ways, including location inspections or to ensure the delivery of critical goods, like medicines to remote areas.
For example, Walmart has the largest drone-delivery system in the US, as it seeks a competitive advantage in last-mile delivery.
The retail giant has expanded drone deliveries to six US states, and up to 4 million households currently have food, groceries and supplies from Walmart delivered by remote-controlled drones.
But the report notes that robots are nearing what Gartner calls the “peak of inflated expectations,” whereby “early publicity produces success stories”.
Speaking at Gartner’s annual Supply Chain Symposium & Expo this year, Klappich said that as many as 96% of businesses they spoke to say they either are – or are planning to – look at robotics.
“These are across all industries, geographies and company sizes,” he said. “When we asked them what their primary motivation was for looking at robotics, 59% said labour availability; they just can’t not get enough people. But this doesn’t mean they're looking at robotics to replace people.”
Klappich added: “In terms of heightened investment in this type of technology, we expect exponential growth over the next year. When we asked people what their expansion plans for robotics are, over 90% of customers say they plan to increase the size of their fleet.”
He says that customers are looking for different areas in which to deploy robots.
“Maybe they started with collaborative picking, but are now looking at truck unloading or at basic transport uses,” he said. “The long and short of it is starting to look at using robots across their entire operations.”
And it is not just large, monied companies that are looking to adopt robotic technologies; small to medium-sized enterprises are also getting in on the action.
Klappich conceded that warehouse automation generally has been the domain of big companies “with 50 to 100 hundred million dollars to invest in automation”. But now, he points out, “you can pick up a robot for a thousand dollars a month, which means companies of any size can have it”.
He adds: “If you look across a warehouse operation there is a need for different robots to perform different things. Take truck unloading, for example. I might have one kind of robot that unloads palletised goods, and a different kind of robot that unloads case goods.
“What this means is that companies will have robot fleets composed of robots from different vendors, and this creates another challenge, in terms of how to orchestrate the work between these different companies, which are multiplying in number very quickly.”
So what do these companies need to help support these fleets of varied robots? Klappich says the answer is a ‘multi-agent orchestration platform’.
This is a software system that sits between warehouse management software and its automation, which enables the coordination and interoperability between multiple autonomous agents in a warehouse. These agents might be robots, conveyors, elevators, traditional automation equipment, or IoT devices that need to work together to perform tasks in the warehouse.
The AI-driven platform coordinates and communicates between the agents, ensuring that they work together efficiently and effectively. It uses AI and machine learning to optimise workflows, allocate tasks and resources, and solve problems in real-time.
“These platforms allow organisations to integrate different types of robots, and assign work to them, to coordinate their activity,” says Klappich. “Without an orchestration platform, a warehouse operation with robots from multiple vendors will be faced with siloed solutions, and this can lead to inefficiencies.”