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Autonomous vehicles and collaborative robots: solutions for warehouses today
Robots and autonomous vehicles have long been symbols of a science-fiction future. Now, they are a reality with considerable potential to transform industry and logistics chains.
The arrival of autonomous cars and trucks is undoubtedly one of the most significant revolutions in the race for innovation. Announcements of new developments seem to follow one-after-the-other at an ever-increasing rate, and these technologies now seem to be within arm’s reach. However, there is still a long way to go before these vehicles become commonplace on the roads. “These technologies need to be fine-tuned to ensure they are totally safe in any and all contexts,” says Philippe de Carné, Director of Innovation and Business Excellence at GEODIS. “But first and foremost, a host of societal and social issues need to be addressed, such as public acceptance and questions related to job trends. We are following all facets in this area very closely. At the same time, an increasing number of operational equipment types are using these technologies on work sites and in warehouses.”
Indeed, the 2017 MHI Annual Industry Report shows that the implementation of these driverless technologies has already begun: 8% of respondents already use driverless vehicles or drones, and about 30% plan to use them within the next 1 to 5 years.
These autonomous-driving technologies still carry risks. However, they are much easier to control in certain environments, such as at dedicated work sites and warehouses. Driverless technologies are now commonly used to move goods, prepare orders and even conduct inventories. They rely on the latest generation of sensors, cameras and artificial intelligence to find the optimal path to a desired destination – all while interfacing with the company’s information systems, interacting with employees, navigating through obstacles and readjusting their trajectory. Most importantly, they carry out these operations while maintaining safe distances from the people and property around them.
Below, we describe four examples of how driverless technology is being used in GEODIS warehouses.
Progress in Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) for this type of equipment has been going on for some time, but has remained unsatisfactory up until now. Previously, they were too expensive, too complicated to implement and not flexible enough. “To address this, GEODIS is currently working on developing a self-driving forklift that features the most advanced guidance and artificial intelligence technologies,” explains de Carné. “This project could significantly increase productivity, but could also improve health and safety conditions at work by reducing employee exertion and streamlining movements.”
Autonomous order picking robot
The forklift is a tool well-suited to heavy loads when it comes to handling entire pallets or large packages. But the expansion of e-commerce has led to an explosion of small orders sent to warehouses with a very high number of SKUs, leading to increasingly longer processing routes.
To meet these new challenges, GEODIS has introduced smaller autonomous robots, which are deployed in fleets. Instead of crisscrossing an entire warehouse with a heavy cart in tow, order pickers are assigned a zone (a concept known as ‘zone picking’). The robot follows an optimized path from station to station depending on the order being processed, finally returning to its base for the final consumer packaging. The dialogue between robot and picker occurs through very user-friendly interfaces and the machine’s ability to recognize the employee. This approach has allowed GEODIS to double its teams’ productivity while reducing employee fatigue.
‘Cobots’: collaborative robots
While automatization has existed in warehouses for some time now, it is still limited due to the very high levels of investment required and the total lack of flexibility offered. Our supply chains must instead be increasingly agile. Therefore, cobots provide a much more adaptive type of robotization.
These new robots provide a different range of options: they are less powerful (and therefore less dangerous), they are capable of more complex movement, they are equipped with a number of sensors and memory capacity, and they can very quickly be installed in a new workstation configuration. In the learning phase, the robot’s arm is guided by a human operator so it can memorize the movements it will need to perform. The cobot is then able to perform the required task directly. These robots are ideally suited for simple repetitive tasks, making it possible to dedicate employee time to more value-added operations that are less arduous.
For example, GEODIS has cleared the Sawyer robot – a 7-axis robotic arm from Rethink Robotics – for use in one of its Italian warehouses to conduct kitting and co-packing operations.
Due to their extremely futuristic dimension, drones excite the imagination with their potential for airborne deliveries. Today, the number of projects being field tested are countless. However, that last kilometer in a delivery is still far from an operational reality due to safety reasons and the physical limitations (weight and distance) that influence these machines’ capabilities in terms of transporting items. But alongside the operational applications of airborne drones, in fields such as surveillance or security, GEODIS has developed an innovative application for them in automated inventory. “With our partner Delta Drone, we have solved several complex problems,” explains de Carné. “These include battery life, automated control from within the building, and the ability to take high-resolution images. With this unique solution, we are able to conduct automated inventories during closing hours, and to do so at a very low cost.” This inventory drone, now in the industrial production phase, can be deployed in any warehouse on demand.
Even if we are still some way off from having driverless trucks or drones delivering packages, robotization and the proliferation of autonomous equipment has become an operational reality. These technologies bring with them the added benefit of very significant increases in productivity and reliability, as well as a reduction in health and safety risks for our human personnel.