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Warehouse automation part I : from dream to reality
What is warehouse automation and how can companies benefit from it ?

Published on April 3, 2020
Warehouse automation provides an answer to several problems, such as variations of processing volumes, and time spent preparing orders. The e-commerce and food production sectors are the most advanced sectors in this respect.

This is not a French or European trend, but a world trend, with the aim of improving productivity, managing peaks of activity, and above all reducing logistics costs.

In China Alibaba has for example equipped its Huiyang warehouse with 60 AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles), using the “Goods to man” principle. These autonomous robots move around the floor, which is covered with QR codes which enable them to identify their position, in order to move the shelves containing the items to the order-pickers. Each robot can carry up to 500 kg and has an autonomy of 4 to 5 h, with 5 minutes of loaded operation. By this means Alibaba has reduced human work in this warehouse by 70%. This technology is also widely deployed by Amazon, in particular in the new Brétigny-sur-Orge site, which uses 4,000 robots and employs 670 persons, who were recruited on open-term contracts when it opened.

Alibaba’s competitor, JD.com, is keeping pace. The JD.com Shanghai warehouse is completely automated, from reception of the items to shipping of the orders. A hinged arm unloads the pallets, scans the boxes and deposits them in standard containers. These containers are routed on conveyors and stored by AGVs in stacker cranes. Picking is also automated, as is packaging and labelling of the packages. Robots deposit the individual packages on AGVs, which transfer them to bags at a lower level. The bags are conveyed by other autonomous robots to the loading platform and then loaded into lorries.

A race for robotisation

Due to its lower margins, but also due to the major peaks of activity which must be absorbed, e-commerce is certainly the sector which is most inclined to adopt technological order-picking innovations.

Ocado, the main British online supermarket, is recognised for its automated picking solutions. Before a dramatic fire, the group’s warehouse, based in Andover, had 1,100 robots, processing 65,000 orders each week. These robots were choreographed to move along on beam routes very precisely (the robots were only 5 mm apart), across an area the size of several football pitches. They were guided by an overhead control system using a 4G transmission rate. The robots moved at a maximum speed of 4 metres per second, operated on batteries, and charged themselves autonomously at terminals. Picking and packaging of an order could be accomplished in 5 minutes, despite the 250,000 storage cells which this warehouse contained. Andover’s reconstruction will take two years. Ocado is now exporting its expertise to mass retail operators in Europe, such as Monoprix in Fleury-Mérogis, and in Japan, with the Aeon retail group.

Amazon is at the forefront of this race for robotisation. It operates 50 “robotic fulfillment centers” throughout the world. The one in North Haven, Connecticut, has an area of 79,400 m². It contains 16 km of conveyors and several hundred mobile autonomous robots. Packages are labelled automatically after packaging. Powerful algorithms determine how to allocate millions of references and more than 100 million items to the 185 supply centres, to deliver to the end client in a timely manner.
But automation is not exclusively for logistics centres. In California Amazon is planning a new kind of supermarket. 21% of its area will be dedicated to an automated mini-warehouse for picking e-commerce orders. The “Goods to man” principle will be maintained, but this time using a stacker crane or a shuttle, not AGVs for dry products. Cold products, for their part, will be taken from the shelves by the order-pickers.

But robotisation concerns sectors other than retail and e-commerce.

Armor, for example, the Nantes-based shining industrial example, and world leader in the manufacture of thermal transfer ribbons, has equipped its warehouses with bespoke AGVs designed by the Rennes-based company BA Systèmes. Their semi-finished products are picked by AGVs which deposit them on conveyors. The products are then palletised by a robot and then packaged by an automatic stretch-wrapper, before being moved to the loading platform. AGVs also serve out the semi-finished products in the cutting workshop. This development is particularly remarkable since the products are voluminous, heavy (approximately 300 kg) and cylindrical.

Additional software solutions

Faced with the unstoppable growth of automation, software designers must devise appropriate solutions. For example, the German company Inconso has developed functions to model and display automated systems. The partnership with the company Doks.innovation is leading to a solution of inventories performed by drones. The inventAIRy® X drone detects and records all visible bar codes. This data can be transmitted directly to an ERP or a WMS.

Inconso has also helped Mango automate its 180,000 m² Lliça d’Amunt warehouse, to the north of Barcelona. Their inconsoWMS solution enables the automated transit of goods to be inspected (shuttles, 25 metre high stacker crane) and all areas of the warehouse to be interconnected. Their additional inconsoDOM solution provides a connection between the ERP and inconsoWMS. Order picking operations are planned using Mango’s ERP variables, and it takes less than 120 minutes to prepare a Mango package for shipping.

Automation therefore means that new digital solutions must be sought. TGW Logistics Group, an Austrian automated solutions integrator, has just developed a digital equivalent to its unitary Rovolution picking solution, which will enable flows to be analysed in real time and possible under-stock situations to be anticipated.

In conclusion, we can see that the mechanical and innovatory solutions are already mature and well established in many sectors, throughout Europe. Data use and management remain a key factor for keeping ahead of the competition. Automation is no longer a dream of a logistics specialist, but instead a reality in many sectors.