Adapting to warehouse challenges with smart robotics

By Tyler W. McCoy, chief engineer at JR Automation

Take advantage of advances in warehouse automation ― including advanced robotics ― to create flexible, robust supply chains that keep up with increasing customer demands. A radical shift in consumer behavior accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic has exponentially expanded the wide-scale adoption of e-commerce and online purchasing. As consumers increasingly make online purchases for standard items like groceries and household supplies, this shift is likely to become permanent — creating a significant impact on warehouse operations and creating new opportunities for innovation.

Early winners so far in this business environment have been the technology-embracing early adopters such as Amazon and Ocado that have innovated with robotics and software to create more efficient, durable supply chains. However, there’s room in this space for all players who are prepared to adopt warehouse automation and robotics. It’s likely that those who don’t participate in this disruptive innovation risk falling behind.

Adapting to warehouse challenges with smart robotics

Traditionally, robotics has applied repeatable, fixtured applications such as those on automotive assembly lines. Now, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) are enabling breakthroughs in perception and complex decision-making in real-time. This allows robotics technologies to operate effectively in more complicated, unstructured environments such as warehouse and distribution networks.

Due to the inherent modularity and scalability of robotics systems for picking, sorting, and palletizing, organizations of all sizes can reap the benefits of these innovations while making warehouse operations efficient, cost-effective, and safe. The ability to add solutions with a high return on investment (ROI) intermixed with manual processes makes them ideal candidates for investment in existing manual facilities.

Hitachi warehouse robotics

Warehouse automation adoption today

The rise of e-commerce has stressed existing parcel and distribution networks to their limits. Faced with a huge need for the efficiencies and increased capacity that warehouse automation can fill, a new breed of intelligent robotics solutions have started to go mainstream. The scalability of these solutions makes them a good fit for an industry that is still mostly manual, and they are a logical next step. For many enterprises, warehouse automation adoption is lagging significantly or absent altogether. According to DHL research, 80% of warehouses remain manually operated.1 Another recent survey indicates that the greatest investments to date are in conveyance (63%), while robotic palletizing and picking are still very low (15% and 8%, respectively).2

Major e-commerce companies know that nimble, automated supply chains are key to meeting demand and staying ahead of the competition. To keep up with these major players, smaller and emerging e-commerce companies must take the right steps to automate their warehouse supply chains. 

When every season is peak season

Before the pandemic, e-commerce and logistics were geared toward the peak season (early November through January). Distribution networks would ramp up for peak, then struggle with underutilized capacity for the remaining nine months. In 2020, the peak began in mid-March and hasn’t slowed. The challenge now for many smaller enterprises is innovating and growing within a peak environment that never subsides. Enterprises no longer have the luxury of downtime to upgrade facilities to increase capacity and integrate new technology.

The e-commerce giants have an easier time integrating new technology organically because their technology stacks are already built. Smaller enterprises must work to bridge this chasm. One of the advantages of advanced robotics is that it can be integrated into operations without taking down a system or facility. Robotics can be added little by little, in a modular fashion, without major disruptions.

There is a significant need among both types of businesses for a partner and integrator that can develop, productize, and scale solutions across the entire distribution network.

hitachi warehouse robotics

Integration expertise meets technology

Together, Hitachi and JR Automation (which was acquired by Hitachi in 2019) work with customers to co-create the products and robotics they need to solve supplier challenges — and then bring an entire team to deploy at scale. This is achievable for large enterprises as well as smaller industry players.

Combined, Hitachi and JR Automation brings deep cross-industry expertise in integrating fundamental robotics technologies into a variety of use cases, including e-commerce warehouse operations. JR Automation is successful in executing hundreds of vision-enabled robotics solutions in the warehouse and logistics space. Vision-enabled solutions recognize and adapt to the high mix of materials to be handled and make decisions in real-time on appropriate picking strategies.

By leveraging their scale, JR Automation and Hitachi have developed a distinct, high-volume deployment business and are now uniquely positioned to develop and refine the initial system designs while deploying at scale. For one customer, we have deployed over 150 robotics solutions into a warehouse environment over two years.

Making warehouse robotics work for business

The challenge for every enterprise is making these technologies work to meet the specific needs of the business. By combining the operational technology expertise of JR Automation with Hitachi’s core strengths in cloud infrastructure, data analytics, and IT, we provide a digital thread that enables you to analyze your enterprise resource planning (ERP) for your entire supply chain. With this analysis, you can precisely understand inventory, supply chain risk, and optimize warehouse operational technology to fit your requirements.

Your starting place is right where you are. You don’t need to have all the answers. We can craft the right problem statement and the best solution for you, so you can begin your robotics journey early and define your best first moves. We help you create a custom holistic solution that addresses your challenges and provides insights across your IT and warehousing infrastructure so you can drive continuous improvements.

Hitachi warehouse robotics

Robust supply chains are critical infrastructure. The COVID-19 pandemic has made that abundantly clear. Every nation must have a disaster-ready supply chain that meets everyday needs, capable of responding quickly to any emergency. Hitachi’s goal as a technology supplier and integrator is to power social good for the world by helping enterprises put these types of supply chains in place so that they are well-prepared to address any situation. Robotics technology is the future of warehouse and logistics automation supply chains. Your business can be supply chain–ready now.

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