By Craig Dowley
In the face of persistent labor shortages and the need for ever increasing fulfillment efficiencies, the notion of a fully automated “lights out” warehouse is more attractive than ever. The impetus behind the lights-out warehouse was initially conceived around the implementation of robotics to handle tasks such as order picking, transferring, sorting, and even loading goods. The robots would work in ghost shifts without human intervention and without the need for facility lighting.
The ability to have a warehouse that would run 24/7 with no staff is naturally an alluring prospect for any manager who seeks a low-cost, high productivity operation. A lights-out warehouse would also be a great convenience for consumers, making fast and inexpensive delivery easier than ever before. While the concept has been around for years, the realization of a totally machine-operated facility has been picking up steam only recently.
Advancements have certainly been made toward the lights-out objective. Order-picking, one of the most labor-intensive tasks in the modern warehouse, has seen great improvements in automation. Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) carry entire shelves of goods to the picker. Low—value travel time within the warehouse is thereby reduced or eliminated. Automation solutions from companies such as:
Our industry has made significant process in the areas of order picking in the warehouse. Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS) are another way of accomplishing the dramatic reduction of wasteful travel time. Even so, most order-picking automation systems rely on human pickers to remove products from a tote or shelf and place them into a shipping container. It has been difficult to create robots that can compete with the speed and accuracy of human vision and dexterity. However, improvements in technology promise to fully automate the picking and even order sorting processes. Several vendors have solutions on the market with high levels of success including:
Other areas that have proven challenging to automate include receiving, auditing, cycle counts and shipping. The receiving process has been problematic because of the fantastic variety of shipping boxes. Damage sustained during shipping is a further complicating factor. In addition, the incredible variation in sizes, shapes, textures, and form factors of the products inside the shipping container makes automated decanting a tricky process.
While progress has been made over the past decade to implement robotics to handle daily material handling tasks, any warehouse manager will attest that without addressing the highly manual tasks of inventory management the dream of going “lights out” is a fantasy.
Auditing, cycle-counting, and inventory management are areas that have remained labor-intensive. Indeed, many warehouses still take inventory using paper and clipboard. Yet even with handheld barcode scanners, inventory management is still a laborious task. The automation of material handling has been achieved, but inventory tracking and management requires the ability to “see,” interpret and report back to the warehouse WMS; otherwise the facility is running blind.
Advances in computer vision and AI have now made it possible to greatly reduce the labor content of inventory management. Vimaan has targeted all the critical inventory touchpoints to deliver a higher degree of scanning, capturing, and reporting the status of goods across the entire warehouse. From receiving to put-away, cycle counting to auditing, picking, and packing and finally shipping, Vimaan computer vision has “eyes” on all your goods and reports in near real-time back to the WMS, ensuring your operations are running off THE TRUTH in inventory status. Whether or not a lights-out warehouse is on your wish list or not, the vicious cycle of worker attrition places a huge strain on facilities across the industry. Automating redundant tasks are a logical step to address these HR pains. Vimaan customers have been able to reduce cycle counting and auditing related labor requirements by more than 50% and have achieved much higher inventory accuracy rates (by more than 99%). And most important of all, unlike other automation systems that take up 3+ years to recoup a return on investment, Vimaan customers achieve ROI in months, not years