The Future of Dock Unloading

Automation Finally Tackles One of the DC's Toughest Jobs

Ask any DC operator which task causes the most labor headaches, and you’ll probably get an earful about unloading freight on the receiving dock. Few warehouse jobs are more arduous, repetitive and injury prone. Not only are these jobs notoriously difficult to fill — especially in today’s shrinking labor market — but they also have some of the highest turnover rates in the industry.

While unloading has long been a target for automation, previous approaches have been hindered by performance, integration and cost factors. Today, however, the newest advances in robot control systems, gripping technology, perception and dynamic collision-free path planning are finally making an efficient solution available. Robots can now take on the difficult tasks of loading and unloading freight, meeting or even exceeding manual performance without modification to trailers or nearby workflows.

These innovations come at an opportune time, as supply chains are forced to modernize in the face of increasing pressures from 
e-commerce. Robotic unloaders and other innovative technologies are more commonly seen as critical to remaining competitive, i.e., lowering logistics costs while enabling DCs to keep up with stricter service level agreements (SLAs).

Other benefits are equally clear. Robotic unloaders relieve workers from arduous and repetitive tasks that are frequently uncomfortable to perform, especially in the extreme temperatures of the summer and winter months. They also eliminate many of the most dangerous jobs, allowing workers to be shifted to more satisfying, higher-value positions.

Matching Technology with Unloading

Finding the technology to automate unloading freight has been a longstanding challenge, mainly because of distribution center (DC) throughput requirements and a variety of package characteristics, including size, weight and type of container.

The industry has seen some attempts to implement automation, such as ergonomic assistance like a conveyor extending into a trailer, and operator-piloted systems that relieve physical burden. However, both of these approaches still require worker supervision throughout the process. This, in turn, fails to address the challenges operations have sourcing labor — a critical need in today’s competitive environment.

Other solutions have emerged that don’t require operator involvement, such as articulated robotic arm unloaders and curtain systems. But each comes with costly trade-offs. Articulated arm systems have speed, maximum size and load limitations, and are not a strong fit for all applications. Curtain systems bring a high risk of product damage and costly, difficult-to-maintain modifications to trailers that are especially challenging when trailer fleets are not under the same ownership.

The Next Generation of Robotic Unloading

Combining multiple innovations with decades of material handling experience has led to the development of a next-generation robotic unloader, currently being refined in pilot programs.

These robots from Honeywell Robotics will be among the first to benefit from a common universal control platform that combines improved vision and machine learning-based decision making with advanced motion planning. Known as the Honeywell Universal Robotics Controller (HURC), this cutting-edge robot “brain” has been designed and built specifically for dynamic, unstructured environments like DCs. With extremely rapid data collection and robust processing power, HURC makes it possible for robots to see better, think smarter, and act faster.

By securely handling massive amounts of data in real time, HURC enables unprecedented levels of active perception as well as a reliable autonomy that requires fewer operator interventions, resulting in greater uptime and faster ROI. Cutting-edge recognition technology identifies products, packages, labels and more. At the same time, the robot senses the locations of objects and people to guide efficient grasping and enhance worker safety.

HURC also enables next-generation unloaders to offer full connectivity, allowing them to incorporate advanced machine learning, adapt quickly to new products or packaging, and use data from other robots to improve their own perception and decision making. These enhancements will allow the machines to unload trucks, trailers and shipping containers in less than half the time, while handling products with greater care.

No Need to Choose Between Speed and Efficiency

The robotic unloader achieves the optimal balance of high throughput rates and package care through an innovative design that uses a robotic straddle arm for picking and an articulated nose conveyor for sweeping. Together, these tools are capable of handling diverse case sizes and weights, even from trailers that haven’t been carefully loaded. The unloader can lift items from 1 to 75 pounds, and product dimensions as small as a box of tissues or as large as a washing machine. This range is designed to accommodate the variety of sizes, shapes and quantities typical of e-commerce operations.

The robot’s advanced vision and onboard intelligence enable these tools to be leveraged for maximum effectiveness, with the highest level of precision and capable of improving through each unloading experience. The robots learn from each grasp, using insights from previous attempts to improve methods for handling new products. This machine-learning capability enables the necessary flexibility to handle the speed and variability of modern commerce. Instead of requiring new programming to handle newly introduced products and packaging types, smart robots can compare them to past experiences and continue the cycle of learning and optimization.

HURC, in conjunction with grasping technology, plays another critical role to provide the necessary level of package care, while enabling fast decision making to meet throughput targets. As different products and packaging types can withstand different levels of force, the onboard intelligence can find the “Goldilocks” setting to strike the balance between a secure grip and package preservation. The articulated nose conveyor positions itself to minimize drop distance — as opposed to dropping items from the top of an eight-foot wall. Furthermore, the system’s unloading aggressiveness can be configured from application to application. Depending on case size and operational specifications, this approach can perform at rates in excess of double a manual operator and ensure customers receive merchandise intact.

Of course, solving the labor challenge doesn’t end with the abilities to pick up and move product. Constant intervention for exception handling or requiring highly skilled technical labor to set up and activate solutions do little to relieve labor pressures.

The system has been designed to be sophisticated enough to do much of its own problem solving, while offering a level of simplicity on par with other commonly used warehouse equipment, such as forklifts. Operators are only needed to prep the trailer, align the robotic unloader, and move the equipment between dock doors. That means just one operator can run up to five robotic unloaders. These employees also do not need advanced skillsets, thanks to standard industrial controls and a simple design.

The unloader is designed and engineered to integrate into existing infrastructure without any additional support equipment. It works in any standard-sized trailer, with no need for tricky alignment, floor coverings or fleet modifications. When integrated with downstream systems, products are discharged either in a bulk or singulated flow, depending on the facility’s needs.

Ultimately, an automated unloading solution of such comprehensive capabilities dramatically changes the labor equation. If a single operator can supervise four or five fully automated unloaders, your labor burden can effectively be reduced by more than 80 percent — dropping from a crew of eight or nine employees to a single supervisor. Peak performance becomes the norm, sustained through the entirety of a shift, at any time of the year, matching or exceeding manual processes.

New Possibilities for Labor and Management

Robotics capable of fully automating unloading tasks bring a new paradigm to the dock. High performance and flexibility push unloading from a labor-heavy, manual task to an automated, refined process.

This opens up new opportunities for management and employees alike. High-performing DC workers can take more desirable positions, with relief from unpleasant work conditions. Management gets to replace uncertainty and staffing challenges with a reliable, automated process, with data to fuel continuous improvement.

In addition to reducing the labor requirements needed to maintain or even increase volume, robotic unloaders also help reduce other costs:

  • The solution reduces injuries by moving human workers out of one of the most dangerous warehouse jobs. 
  • Improved employee retention leads to lower rehiring and training costs.
  • Simplified labor allocation is made possible by predictable throughput, reducing both the risks of overstaffing and the need for costly overtime.