In an age of high demand and instant access, it’s impossible to imagine a world without e-commerce. Expectations for rapid deliveries have become embedded in the way consumers think about products and services. However, the reality is that this must somehow be facilitated.
The growth of e-commerce has led to the increased diversification of the parcel profile. Today’s sorting facilities must process a wide range of differently sized items through the same network. Especially challenging will be the ability to cope with an increasing number of smaller items.
The processes inside these sorting centres are labour intensive, and companies struggle to find skilled people to perform routine and repetitive tasks. As our society continues to evolve, the growing volume of parcels will require smarter, more cost-effective and faster solutions.
Room for robotics
Over the coming years, I expect a technological shift to occur as rising labour costs, coupled with a shrinking workforce, begin to take hold. This will rapidly create the need for distribution centres (DCs) across the world to start robotising the process steps in their supply chains further.
I believe that we are heading towards a future in which collaborative robotics – or ‘cobots’ – will perform the menial activities in a DC, while being managed by human operatives. This is a natural progression and will build on the previous success of automated technology in DCs. However, factoring in the required handling speed with the widening product ranges in a sorting centre will be facilitated by the next generation of gripper and vision technology.
An example that perfectly highlights the robotisation of a logistic process is Vanderlande’s smart item robotics (SIR) concept. This sees a robotic arm positioned on top of a traditional order pick workstation.
Operators can work safely side-by-side with the robot unit without using a fenced cell, which creates a low-risk working environment with high flexibility. Software will allow the robot to pick most products without the need for teaching. The robot also optimises order carton filling by gently stacking items. The SIR solution has been positively received by the industry, because it’s not only low risk, but a human operator is still required. As such, my short-term vision is that it may only require one operator to oversee several workstations, for example.
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