Over the past year, COVID-19 has put a huge strain on warehouse operations—making hiring and staffing a challenge, while simultaneously accelerating the demand for fast, effective e-commerce services. Even as social distancing restrictions lift, e-commerce adoption rates continue to rise dramatically, highlighting the need for ongoing solutions to fulfillment, shipping, and delivery challenges. The warehousing industry is primed for an automation boom to support this new landscape.

However, the adoption of automation technology in warehouses and distribution centers remains relatively low and often limited to conveyor-based sorting systems. Understanding why this is the case is key to creating better automation tools. 

We’ll look at two strategies to speed the adoption of warehouse automation and get better results with more flexible, mobile technologies.

Plan for Variability

Robotic arms and other automation technologies have been commonplace in manufacturing for decades. So why aren’t they more prevalent in the warehouse? One reason is that, compared to industries like manufacturing, warehouses and distribution centers face a lot more variation, in both the objects they move and the processes they follow. This is especially true right now, as many DCs are expanding, adding more SKUs, employees, and square footage. 

Because warehouse activities vary throughout the day, deploying static solutions designed for manufacturers can be a significant challenge. Fixed robots take up a lot of valuable space but are only able to work on a single task in a single area. One solution to this challenge is to use mobile automation. Stretch can spend the morning unloading inbound trucks, the afternoon in the aisles building orders, and the evening reloading outbound trucks. It can easily go all day, switching between tasks and moving to wherever the work is. 

Similarly, warehouses have a lot of scenarios that make automated perception and robotic manipulation more challenging—messy pallets, low light, mixed SKU shipments. Solutions built for a warehouse environment offer more intelligent vision and gripping technology, capable of tackling more versatile applications.

Reduce Infrastructure Costs

The second major barrier to warehouse automation is the cost. In one survey, 55 percent of respondents in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry sector said the cost of implementation is their biggest barrier to adoption.

There are a few factors that feed into this, but a major barrier is infrastructure. Plenty of industrial robot arms offer the strength and power to lift the cartons, cases, and boxes passing through the typical warehouse. But those robots require a fixed installation to operate safely. More mobile solutions may need special lighting or other add-ons, driving up the baseline cost. 

Once again, flexibility is key to overcoming this challenge. A mobile case handling robot like Stretch has the right mix of strength, size, and perception to autonomously operate in a typical warehouse without new fixed infrastructure or special accommodations. Implementing a case handling robot designed for the environment is a lot more cost-effective than redesigning the warehouse around the robot.

To learn more about how Stretch enables flexible warehouse automation, watch Stretch in action