Bots: A Key Technology in Successful DCs

By Gary Forger

Last time around, we pulled back the curtain on the value of iBOTs that get all the work done within the Perfect Pick® and Sure Sort™ systems. It is important to mention that one of major benefits of the iBOTs within their respective systems is the significant decrease in travel time for humans throughout a warehouse. And just as you might have suspected, bots, generically, are utilized in many other material handling applications as well. In fact, bots are playing an increasingly important role in warehouse and distribution center operations, e-commerce and retail fulfillment, and even in manufacturing. Let’s take a look. 

Probably the most easily recognized bots are those created by Kiva. You’ve seen these low-profile, mobile platforms that run around a DC’s floor bringing pods of goods to pickers. When picking is completed, the bots return the pods to their storage locations, speeding order fulfillment all the way. 

Bots, also known as autonomous mobile robots in this application, have also ventured into territory that has long belonged to automatic guided vehicles or AGVs – the warehouse and shop floor. Traditionally, AGVs are big vehicles -- ranging from lift truck-size to riding lawn mower size. However, bots are much smaller – ranging from low-profile platforms to platforms with an inventory-carrying structure above it. Those are two entirely different form factors that can make bots less intimidating working alongside people. 

But the real difference between the two is the navigation system. AGVs typically follow a pre-set path. Bots use onboard technologies to determine their own paths autonomously. That’s a huge difference! Wherever bots go, they are seriously challenging established technologies. And with good reason. What bots of all types have in common is the ability to operate autonomously. That’s not possible with storage system shuttles or AGVs. The autonomous operation of bots has an exponential impact on efficiency compared to related technologies. That’s a powerful story that stands to improve productivity significantly, wherever bots go. 

It also opens the door to some other interesting applications for bots. Two worth talking about are cluster picking and opportunistic replenishment. These were detailed in Supply Chain Management Review. In cluster picking, bots carrying multiple totes fill multiple orders simultaneously. People pick to the totes and the bots move on to the next picking area and a different set of pickers. That reduces walking distances for people, increasing productivity while reducing labor costs. This application is best for tightly defined order profiles. 

Opportunistic replenishment has even greater potential. Here, bots move inventory from reserve storage to picking areas. Along the way, people can perform picks from the bot and unload inventory as needed for replenishment. Once again, the bots eliminate much of the walking needed by people and also help to reduce costs. There are no limitations to order or inventory profile here. 

By now, it’s clear to see that bots are not only well-established but come in different shapes and sizes. There are the ones running in Perfect Pick and Sure Sort, those on DC floors expediting order picking and the ones that are an alternative to traditional AGVs. And who knows where they may show up next. 

So there you have it, bots galore. My bet is that from now on you notice bots where you never did before, and even imagine where they might make your operations better. They are the future. 

Gary Forger is the former editor of Modern Materials Handling magazine and the Material Handling & Logistics U.S. Roadmap to 2030.  

 

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