Automatic warehouses: current state of the art
Automation 4.0 has arrived in warehouses, and it was definitely needed. Perhaps still considered as static places where goods simply remain parked, today warehouses have become and are increasingly becoming dynamic and smart environments, where there is a place for robotics (especially for AGVs - Automatic Guided Vehicles), computer science and sensors. It did not happen out of whim, because in the last few years a significant increase in complexity has affected the activities of warehouse and logistics.
Regardless of the type of goods sold, warehouses today contain many more products and much more data than in the past. In order to satisfy more and more demanding customers, who are informed and expect a greater customization, the offers have expanded and deepened.
Furthermore, with the introduction of traceability and monitoring systems, sensors and Internet of Things connectivity in many factories and supply chains, a veritable explosion of data has occurred. Data are indeed a resource but also a complicated material to manage. Moreover, in order to pursue the levels of service provided by Amazon and other e-commerce giants, even the most traditional companies find themselves under pressure, having to increasingly reduce delivery time.
Read more: Warehouse logistics: IoT sensors and new handling systems
How can we deal with such an important and probably irreversible change? Automation is a powerful tool for reducing complexity – and costs! – and is also a forward-looking investment that pays for itself quickly. There are two types of automation: "material", related to the storage and handling of goods; and "immaterial", made with management and control software solutions. It sounds complicated, but the tools to support the technological transformation of the warehouse are certainly not lacking.
Automated racking and AGVs, Automated Guided Vehicles, overturn the old model of a static warehouse and bring new efficiency in the storage, handling, picking, loading and unloading of goods (palletized, in boxes or in bulk). All these procedures are suitable for being automated, with excellent results.
A dynamic and automatic storage and handling system, for example, allows the entire height of the warehouse to be exploited (transforming it into a "vertical warehouse"): up to 90% more space can be saved, at the same square footage, compared to a traditional layout. And, in addition to space optimization, greater speed is obtained (no time is wasted searching for an article or lot), precision (zero human error) and safety (no difficult handling, loading and unloading operations are attempted).
We can define the automated warehouse as an automated plant for the storage of goods, consisting of four main elements:
- the shelving, which allows the vertical volumes to be exploited;
- the stacker crane, a frame that moves vertically and sometimes horizontally, sliding on a rail, with rope, belt or chain traction;
- the handling, i.e. the set of devices that extract and move load units (automatic conveyors, shuttles, rollers or chains and other elements);
- the electronic component, i.e. the electrical cabinet, a computer and a management and control software.
Both the handling of materials and products and the loading and unloading operations are suitable to be automated, leading to great savings in time and great gains in efficiency and precision.