Across the e-commerce order-fulfillment sector sales of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are booming. According to recent market intelligence the number of AMR’s acquired for use in fulfilment order picking facilities globally was close to 20,000 in 2019 – a figure which is almost double the total posted for the previous year. And it is forecast that AMR sales will continue their upward trajectory with more than 1.1 million ‘bots predicted to be deployed in warehouses around the world before the end of 2024.
AMR technology differs from the science behind the established Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs) that have become a familiar sight in logistics hubs across the world in that they do not rely on human interaction to change route. Instead, on-board navigation systems guide them between destinations.
Mobile robots can be used effectively to transport pallets within a warehouse, offering a more flexible alternative to fixed pallet conveyors, as Craig Whitehouse, Managing Director of the UK-based solutions design, hardware integration and project management company, Invar Integration, explains: “Flexible technology combined with powerful, intelligent software allows for a new way of thinking. A conventional conveyor system is normally installed to an agreed throughput, usually to a projected peak figure. But this results in the asset running below capacity for the majority of the year. On the quietest day it may only handle a tenth of the volume experienced at peak.
“However, a solution using AMRs could be designed for 70% of peak, with additional robots brought in during peak periods. It’s this level of scalability that offers SMEs a flexible low-entry point to automation,” he adds.
Various AMR-based systems are available – each capable of performing specific roles throughout the warehouse, but one of the most recent functions to benefit from emerging mobile robot technology is sortation. Sortation robots are proving an attractive alternative to fixed tilt-tray and cross-belt conveyor-based sortation systems that have historically been used within many busy parcel and e-commerce operations.
Furthermore, with no fixed infrastructure requirements, modular AMR-based systems are scalable and offer flexibility with additional robots easily introduced as and when they are needed to cope with any spikes in throughput. What’s more the technology is fully portable – meaning systems can be switched between sites if required.
Sortation robots require a significantly smaller floor area within which to operate than a conveyor to achieve the same parcel throughput statistics, while in many cases the time needed to complete an installation is also notably shorter than what is necessary when building conveyor-based sorting solutions.
And, of course, unlike conveyor-based sorting systems which often have to be shut down if a fault develops at any point ‘on the line’, if an individual robot malfunctions it is simply removed from the ‘shop floor’ and quickly replaced - with no discernible drop in throughput capacity.
In fact, the benefits of introducing autonomous robot sorting systems within an ecommerce or parcel processing environment are considered by some to be so impressive that it is predicted that around 300,000 sortation AMRs will be in operation worldwide within the next four years.
Until now China and the USA have been the top two investors in AMR sortation systems but as autonomous mobile robot technology’s reputation for bringing flexibility and scalability to some of the busiest ecommerce and parcel sorting hubs in the world spreads, Europe’s logistics community is increasingly conscious of the benefits that this innovative, low CapEx approach to sortation brings.
“Quite simply, with ecommerce only likely to become ever more competitive, Europe’s retailers and their logistics partners cannot afford to overlook the significant operational advantages that AMR-based sortation solutions deliver,” says Xia Hulling, founder and CEO of LiBiao Robot, whose ‘Mini Yellow’ AMR solution is in operation at many diverse companies including Walmart facilities throughout the United States, at Uniqlo’s main hub in Japan and at various China Post sites in China.
“2021 is the year of the robot,” says Tim Wight, managing director of industrial robotics and AMR goods-to-person solutions specialists, Invar Systems. He continues: “The last 12 months has opened the eyes of omni-channel retailers to the vulnerability of highly manual processes. Their almost complete reliance on online sales during the pandemic has emphasised the critical necessity for reliable fulfillment and the efficient picking and packing of single and small multiples of order items.”
He adds: “Autonomous mobile robots offer the flexibility, speed and performance needed for efficient goods-to-person automation. Importantly, they offer scalability too, which is critical to allowing businesses to roll out the technology as the demands of the business dictate. AMR systems combined with pick-to-light technology can boost order picking performance from under 100 units per hour using traditional methods, to up to 600 picks per hour, with an ROI that can be as little as 12 months.”