The secret world of robotic warehouse automation:

You might imagine that China is one place where the availability of labour is a big factor in slowing the automation of warehousing.

However, like in many western countries, true labour availability for warehousing is alarmingly low as workers prefer to take attractive tech and office jobs and avoid jobs that follow the 4 D’s; dull, dirty, difficult and dangerous.

In the near past, China warehouses and factories required large dormitories to attract and accommodate workers from remote provinces to the job rich coastal areas.

The latest automated warehouse pilot project on the outskirts of Shanghai has a dormitory for only 50 people, a far cry from the norm of 1000 bed dorms for manual warehouses capable of producing 200,000 ecommerce orders per day.

The term we are using now is “peak labour”. We have reached an inflection point from where warehouse labour numbers have peaked and from now on they will only decline, with interesting implications for all participants in the logistics industry and probably its mostly a positive thing.

We are visiting this latest automated ecommerce warehouse on the last day of the TM Insight China Online Logistics study tour that takes industry leaders inside the largest ecommerce operations in the world. This allows us to see first hand how the Chinese giants are developing the worlds best online fulfilment operations and figure out what can apply elsewhere in their own operations.

After passing through strict security checks, we enter the holy grail of warehouse operations, a near-zero direct labour distribution centre. and its Chinese automation equipment partners have developed a home grown operation that is simply stunning in its elimination of labour.

The warehouse handles ecommerce hardgoods capable of fitting in totes, however it is easy to see how the technology could be adapted to soft-goods and larger hard goods.

When product is received the cartons can be automatically decanted into totes, using robotic decanting, the process is somewhat hampered by supplier accuracy problems, sound familiar?

In this warehouse the reality is that labour is used to double check contents before putting them into the tote, since there is no further human check in the warehouse, this serves as the only human QA point.

Once the product is in the tote, the totes are transferred to a China made tote Automated Storage and Retrieval System from where they are later picked and transferred to one of 6 robotic pick cells.

At the robotic pick cells two donor totes can be presented simultaneously to a 70kg 5 axis robot equipped with two suction caps. This robot arm picks from the two totes into one of 4 order totes, allowing a mix of up to 5 products per tote.

Optical, weight and laser scanning of the tote cargo, product and the barcode is used to ensure product and sizing accuracy.

Once the order tote is completed, this is passed to a packing robot, again a 70kg 5 axis robot. This robot picks the products from the order tote and places them on an auto packaging system either a plastic bag maker or a carton maker, depending on the order and product configuration.

This high speed process is followed by a label applicator before the finished carton is conveyed and paced onto Autonomous Mobile Robots. these Autonomous Mobile Robots replace a conventional sorter system and are equipped with tilt trays so that when they travel to the required drop chute they tilt the package into the chute.

This system makes great use of vertical space for sortation allowing far larger numbers of sorts in a far smaller area than conventional sorters.

At the bottom of the sort chute sits a bulk bag capable of handling over 1CBM of packages. This bulk bag sits on another Autonomous Mobile Robot, this time the Autonomous Mobile Robot is fitted with a cross belt. Once the bag is filled, it is automatically sealed, a label applied, then its transferred to despatch.

The despatch arrangement is stunningly simple. The Autonomous Mobile Robot uses its cross belt to drive the bag onto the appropriate extendable boom conveyor that sits at each despatch dock door. The boom conveyor control is integrated with the Autonomous Mobile Robot so that the bags can progressively accumulate on the boom until all the bags for the load are completed.

On the exterior of each recessed dock a large countdown display shows progress and completion of the load. When ready the driver backs onto the dock, extends the boom conveyor into the truck, drives the bags off the conveyor and then retracts the conveyor out of the truck. Auto loading of ecommerce trucks, Chinese style!!

So while in a perfect world there is zero labour, some labour is still used for inbound and larger ecommerce orders (over 6 items, really B2B orders) that are routed to a GTP pick station to ensure quality & economic packaging.

So what does this all mean for us? is showing that virtually any logistics task can now be automated. Taking these principles into your operations will support labour elimination in many tasks, especially the 4D tasks, the dull, difficult, dirt and dangerous tasks. AMR’s as we have previously discussed, have an almost endless application in the warehouse, improving operational and space efficiencies to unheard of levels. shows that 5 axis robots capabilities and speed have already matched human capability for item picking, the last barrier for full automation has been smashed.

Putting these technologies together with existing technologies of tote Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems and boom conveyors allows integrated systems with outstanding capability and flexibility. The trickle-down effect will be that we can all expect to be able to implement these systems in the near future.

The Chinese MHE manufacturers and integrators will soon be fighting for market share with the traditional European MHE providers in your region, this competition will promote better pricing service and capability from all suppliers.

Next up, I’ll wrap up the study tour report with a “Fundamentals of Autonomous Mobile Robots” report.

In the meantime, see the below video on the automated warehouse, it’s a company video since the site we visited is still top secret and under commissioning.

Adam Noakes
Director – Supply Chain at TM Insight