Automation of shipping centres is a fact. Time for robotisation

Loading and unloading, sorting and completing orders of non-standard dimensions and shapes is still done by people. Workers pushing handcarts, forklift operators and logistics train operators are an army that generates huge labour costs. It is not surprising that companies have been trying for years to replace their work with robots.
There are billions at stake that can remain in the pockets of the shareholders of logistics companies. That is why giants spend so much on research: for them, every robotised process is like discovering a vein of gold.

AMRs take over internal transport at Amazon and DHL

A few months ago, DHL announced that 1,000 LocusBots will soon be deployed at its logistics centres (specifically DHL Supply Chain). Devices resembling a small shelf on wheels will be used in logistic processes, especially order picking.

In turn, in 2019 Amazon presented an autonomous machine called Xanthus. This machine is the next generation of self-propelled transport carts, which have been used in Amazon’s warehouses for years.

Both machines are Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR). They can transport loads of various weight (usually up to about 1000 kg). What is important is that they do not require separate operating zones: they work next to people and with people. They are equipped with safety systems that allow them to effectively avoid collisions with personnel, other machines and obstacles. They make their own decisions about choosing the optimal route. They can pick up and put down transported loads on their own.

What is it that a robot does better?

Each robot has three properties that make it an unrivalled worker:

  • it works non-stop and does not get tired – one robot can replace three people, because it can work three shifts without interruption, does not get sick and does not need a vacation;
  • it does not take a salary – it does not expect child benefits, sickness benefits, sick leave, benefits for harmful working conditions and many other social benefits;
  • it never succumbs to emotions – because it cannot feel any, and as a result, it always behaves rationally and predictably: it always stays focused and attentive, and the activities it performs are always as precise as possible.

All these features mean robots win in competition with humans. Especially, wherever repetitive activities must be performed with constant accuracy for many hours, and in practice, non-stop for days and weeks. And these are tasks in the logistics centres of courier companies. AMRs need breaks only for battery charging, necessary maintenance and repairs. However, these breaks do not influence the continuous running of operations, as the machines can be replaced smoothly. This is the complete opposite of automatic sorting plants based on conveyor belts, where the failure of one element means that the entire sorting line is stopped.

Dealing with non-standard shipments is still in the hands of people

Automatic sorting is great for standard-sized boxes with a fixed upper weight limit. Things get complicated when dealing with parcels which do not meet limits – those that are particularly long and narrow, irregular or too heavy.

Currently, only people can sort this type of shipment. Attempts to replace them when completing and packing orders still have not brought satisfactory results. Therefore, the investment is aimed at supporting equipment and software that gives immediate answers to questions like what is an optimal container size or how to arrange most efficiently the goods in many containers of different sizes, or calculates the maximum filling of a container. An investment in software solutions allows a measurable increase in work efficiency.

This does not change the fact that in the near future, intelligent, autonomous machines may take over all logistics processes. Now, they are doing it on a small scale and still need to cooperate with people. In the future, however, it will be people’s role to supervise machines, not to do physical work themselves.