Leading edge manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping companies are adopting new material handling technologies, such as wearable robotics, to make their operations more efficient and safer for workers.
The recent market shift toward online sales has been a boon (or a headache, depending on your point of view) for warehouse and logistics companies. Customers are increasing the number of package delivery orders while demanding ever faster shipments. To keep up with increased demand, e-tailers’ Customer Fulfillment Centers (CFCs) and Third-Party Logistics (3PL) providers are increasingly looking at a range of new material handling technologies, from wearable robotics vests that help prevent worker injuries, to fully-automated, all-robot picking and packing operations.
In this article, we take a look at these different human/robot combinations coming on the market and offer some specific design tips for each of these different scenarios.
Wearable Robotics Help Extend Human Capabilities While Preventing Accidents
In our report on how to prevent workplace accidents, we found that Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) caused by overexertion (such as lifting heavy objects) are the #1 cause of disabling injuries at work — costing as much as $15 billion dollars.
At Ford Motor Company, a single shoulder injury can reportedly cost the company $100k per worker to rehabilitate. Overhead work (where the worker has to lift heavy tools or parts overhead) is of particular concern to Marty Smets, a Ford Ergonomics Expert. “If you think about (lifting) 15 pounds applied several thousand times over the course of a shift, we figure it’s about the equivalent of having to lift the mass of 20 Mustangs, per day, per arm.”
High tech companies have been developing wearable robotics solutions (including the Indego by Parker Hannifin, ReWalk by ReWalk, and Ekso GT by EksoBionics) to help patients suffering from a debilitating stroke, spinal cord injuries, or other disabling conditions to walk again with the assistance of a wearable robotic “exoskeletons.”
As the price comes down, these robotic exoskeletons are entering wider use for able-bodied workers to reduce injuries from performing repetitive overhead tasks. After a successful trial, Ford announced it would provide employees performing overhead work with an EksoVest, made by EksoBionics, at fifteen of its worldwide assembly plants. Each vest costs about $6k, provides each arm with between 5 – 15 pounds of lift assistance, and, according to the manufacturer EksoBionics, no batteries or electronics are required for it operate.
According to ABI Research, just under 5,000 wearable robotic exoskeletons were sold in 2017, but they predict over 100,000 sales by 2025. CBS News reports that sales will rise from $68M in 2014 to $1.8B by 2025.
Design Tip: Material Handling Safety at Work
With Boeing currently evaluating wearable robotic exoskeletons at their 787 Final Assembly Line in Charleston, SC, now may be the time to investigate if these solutions are right for your material handling facility — particularly for workers lifting heavy packages in warehousing/shipping operations, or performing overhead construction work and maintenance operations.
Be sure to review our reports on how to make your workplace safer for employees working in material handling facilities and in the office.
Visual Picker Technology Helps Improve Efficiency and Reduce Errors
We’ve come a long way since the days of paper packing slips, with a succession of different technologies being introduced, each one considered the ultimate solution.
For example, Pick-by-Light systems, which point workers to the right bin with a light indicator, were once seen as the ideal ‘hands-free’ solution to replace paper-based systems; but in practice, they are relatively expensive to implement and inflexible when it comes time to reconfigure your warehouse layout.
Next came Pick-by-Voice systems, which relied on workers wearing headsets to listen for picking commands. While audible interfaces are projected to become a dominant user interface for consumer products (replacing keyboards on smartphone screens, for example), workers in the material handling world complained that listening to a constant stream of picking commands piped into their headsets caused them unnecessary fatigue and stress.
That brings us to visual picking systems, which rely on users donning a pair of glasses with a built-in mini projection screen (think Google Glass) that provides visual information. Users report less stress when using a visual picking system, and early data indicates that workers using visual picking systems are up to 20% more efficient, according to Logistics Magazine.
Design Tip: Using Visual Guides for Material Handling
Use visual information to keep your warehouse material handling operations running efficiently, from color coding your bins and parts to help warehouse pickers distinguish between similar looking items, to implementing a 5S program to keep your facility layout free and clear of unnecessary materials and tools.
You can find more tips to create a more efficient warehouse design in our guide “13 Tips for Your Ultimate Warehouse Design & Layout.”
Formaspace can also provide an on-sight evaluation, through our Rapid Plant Assessment program, to provide you with specific recommendations to improve the efficiency of your facility.
Cobots Allow Workers and Robots to Work Safely Side-by-Side
We first reported on the next-generation German manufacturing strategy, known as Industry 4.0, back in 2015. Since that time, more and more companies are adopting Industry 4.0 “smart factory” concepts that bring together a wide range of interconnected technologies, from additive manufacturing to the Internet of Things-powered sensors, to advanced visualization systems, to autonomously functioning robots.
As we discovered at this year’s 2018 Hannover Messe in Germany (one of the world’s premier trade show for manufacturing technology), the conversation is now about Industry 5.0 — the next industrial revolution where man and machine can work together side-by-side in harmony, leaving the monotonous, repetitive roles to robot machines, while freeing up the creative activities for human workers.
This makes for a good segue to talk about cobots, which, unlike many industrial robots that must operate behind a safety cage (lest they inadvertently injure or kill workers who come too close), cobots have been designed from the ground up to be “gentile” machines that can be safely guided to move or stop by the touch of a human hand.
Cobots were everywhere at the 2018 Hannover Messe, from pouring beer for stand attendees to playing ping-pong against table tennis champion Dimitrij Ovtcharov.
Jim Lawton, CMO at Boston-based Rethink Robotics, explains the shockingly simple approach to training their cobot products, Baxter and Sawyer. “When you grab (the robot) by the wrist, it goes into what we call zero-G mode. So the robot is using its motors to compensate for its own weight,” says Lawton. This allows you to move the robot and train it by moving it by hand, through all the motions you want it to perform, step-by-step. “So you can move (it) over here, click a button, grab this (item), put it over here, and put it down. Once you’ve done that (training motion), it can do it over and over and over again without any intervention.”
Sawyer robots perform some of the most monotonous tasks that your warehouse operations, or your third-party logistics (3PL) provider, can come up with, such as assembling and taping up cardboard boxes or packing up boxes with products coming down a conveyor belt.
These operations can also be done working side-by-side with production line workers, as in this French example of a packing line for a cosmetics company.
Design Tip: Create Flexible Layouts around Cobots
If you are considering implementing cobots, such as Baxter or Sawyer from Rethink Robotics, keep in mind that, unlike humans that can easily move across the floor, they operate from a fixed location, which limits their effective reach. As a result, you may have to reconfigure your existing layouts to accommodate the addition of cobots.
We also recommend creating a prototyping lab area where you can experiment with different layouts and tool configurations to optimize the use of cobots — before introducing them on your regular production lines.
If you need help creating prototype line configurations, Formaspace Design Consultants are just a phone call away. We’ll be glad to share our expertise in creating custom production line solutions.
Robots Perform Picking Operations While Workers Supervise Operations
At the upper echelon of high volume e-tailers and third-party logistics (3PL) providers, the need for faster speed, higher throughput volumes, and lack of available workers, are increasingly driving them to implement all-robot solutions for their custom fulfillment centers (CFCs) — leaving it to the humans to design, manage, and maintain these automated systems.
In some cases, the scope of these all-robot material handling solutions is limited to specific functions, such as replacing the human-operated fork lifter with automated systems. A good example of this is Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR) out of Denmark, which has a line of pallet transport robots that can find their way through the factory, even around temporary obstacles, while transporting pallet loads of up to 500kg (roughly 1100 lbs).
Other e-tailers are developing robotic systems for their Customer Fulfillment Centers (CFCs) from a clean sheet of paper. One such company is UK-based Ocada, which describes itself as the world’s largest dedicated online grocery retailer — with over 580,000 active customers. Their solution was to create a multi-level robot-only grid system that allows thousands of robots to pick customer orders and then “drop” picked products into catchment bins underneath the grid. Over 65,000 customer grocery orders each week are processed at their facility located in Andover, about 75 miles southwest of London.
Design Tip: Creating Efficient Robot Highway Furniture with Integrated Packing Stations
Robot-based solutions may require you to rethink your existing assumptions about how to design warehouse shipping and picking layouts.
For example, under the direction of one of our major clients, our Technical Sales team created a patented, mobile furniture system that’s designed from the ground up to integrate with robotic pickers. This unique, space-saving nesting design creates a dedicated path — essentially a robot roadway — that allows the robots to pass unimpeded through the warehouse.
In another instance, Formaspace created linear flow packing stations that were specifically designed to accommodate robotic pickers at a very large e-tailer warehouse and packing facility.
We recommend speaking with your Formaspace Design Consultant to discuss your needs. Working together, we can help you design and manufacture an ideal solution here at our factory headquarters in Austin, Texas.
Computer Simulations Help Build More Efficient Material Handling Processes
An increasing number of visualization tools, from VR to AR solutions, help material handling experts investigate the pros and cons of different designs layouts and processes used in picking and packing operations — without having to create a physical prototype first.
For example, Formaspace offers a free, online tool called the Virtual Workbench Builder that allows you to design customized workstations for manufacturing, maintenance, repair, and packing operations. Check it out.
What about visualizing the logistics process itself? Industry leaders, such as Simul8, offer tools that allow you to test out different logistics scenarios. In a particularly useful video demonstration in a scenario for electrical goods manufacturing, a production planner can use Simul8 software to drill down into production schedules to determine whether investing in a new $1m+ winding machine would provide a better return on investment compared to adding more workers to the shift.
We expect to see systems such as these evolve into AI-powered expert systems that can use real-time production data (using techniques such as process mining, which we’ve written about before) that provide production and logistics planners with useful, actionable information to make their facilities more efficient.
Make Your Facility More Efficient with Solutions from Formaspace
Material handling, warehousing, and shipping facilities are a big part of our business. We’re proud to count many of the top Fortune 500 and 100 companies as our clients.
We not only build top-quality industrial furniture here at our Austin, Texas factory headquarters, we can also help you redesign your facilities to work more efficiently by designing new processes and custom designs unique to your specific needs.
Remember: If you can imagine it, we can build it.
Take the next step. Contact your friendly Formaspace Design Consultant today. We’ll be happy to share our extensive experience with you. Together, we can build the right solution for your shipping and warehousing needs.