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Faster Return On Investment Makes Robotics More Compelling Than Ever

A mixed SKU depalletizer and an autonomous mobile robot move product in a distribution center
A mixed SKU depalletizer and an autonomous mobile robot move product in a distribution center

Faster Return On Investment Makes Robotics More Compelling Than Ever

Robotic warehousing, distribution and order fulfillment solutions have long been touted for their abilities to adapt to rapidly changing conditions, scale faster than manual processes, and respond to sudden market shifts with agility. But many operations put off investments in such solutions, due to concerns about garnering an adequate and timely return on investment (ROI) that justifies deploying this type of automation.

Circumstances have changed, however. Not only because of the pandemic and the ensuing logistics complexities, but also due to the evolution of robotics technologies themselves. A confluence of innovative technologies is enabling unprecedented capability and performance, as well as making such systems significantly more integrated and cost-efficient than in past.

Robots to the Rescue

First, costs are coming down. According to the International Robotics Federation, the average price of industrial robots fell by a compound annual growth rate of 6 percent between 2013–2018.

Second, distribution center (DC) automation is finally coming of age, thanks to significant advances in simulation, sensors, vision, mobility, computing power, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and connectivity. All of these features and functions are contributing to speed up and simplify system integrations and expansions, making it easier for managers and associates to implement and use the systems.

Third, the inherent versatility of the robotic marketplace itself supports the technology’s adoption in a variety of use cases. Because today’s warehouse robotic systems are equipped with safety features and programmed to navigate autonomously throughout an operation — interacting with their human colleagues safely and consistently — they can be redeployed to different areas of a facility for other tasks. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), for example, are already being used by numerous retail fulfillment operations to handle processes such as:

  • Moving heavy pallet loads in cross-docking operations, to and from palletizers or stretch wrappers, or from reserve storage to downstream picking zones
  • Transporting returned or refurbished items to sorting stations, reserve storage or other disposition points
  • Indicating and collecting picks from associates staged in picking zones, then carrying those picked items to workstations for packing and order finishing processes

Robots Support Existing Workforce

Although the past few years have seen anxious speculation about the potential for robotic implementations replacing human workers in DC operations, the reality is such technologies support associates by freeing them from routine, tedious and tiring work while enabling them to perform higher-value tasks.

Further, the existing labor pool is shrinking. Even before the pandemic dramatically increased the demand for workers, roughly 10,000 baby boomers were reaching retirement age every day — with fewer younger workers available to replace them. Other factors contributing to a faster robotic ROI include the rising cost of warehouse labor, turnover rates as high as 36 percent, and replacement costs per worker from 25–150 percent of an employee’s salary. Although virus-related unemployment in other sectors may temporarily increase the available labor pool in the short term, there are many indicators pointing to a problem that will only get worse.

DCs that want to remain competitive will need to act quickly as employment levels normalize. In this recent On The Move article, learn how Honeywell Intelligrated can help you to determine the optimal robotic application to maximize your ROI.

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