Logistics and Warehousing Automation

Originally published August 17, 2021, updated September 21, 2022

Logistics and warehousing facilities worldwide deploy numerous layers of automation from automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to de/palletizing systems and piece-picking robots.

With companies facing labor shortages, inflationary pressures, and the challenge of staying competitive in uncertain times, the improved productivity, throughput, and efficiency provided by warehouse robots makes for a compelling proposition. At the same time, the market for online e-commerce has exploded, increasing by 18% in 2020, and is predicted to grow a further 13.7% in 2021, according to a recent report from eMarketer.

No surprise then that the global market for warehouse automation is on the rise. Valued at around USD15 billion in 2019 the market is expected to be worth an estimated USD30 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 14% during the forecast period, according to the latest ‘post-pandemic’ report from LogisticsIQ.

Let’s explore a small sampling of the technologies developed by A3 members, that are transforming operations in warehouse and logistics facilities worldwide.

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) have been around for decades, are getting better all the time, and are a proven solution for increasing throughput in warehouse environments. Valued at USD3.39 billion in 2020, the global market is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.0% from 2021 to 2028, according to a 2021 report from Grand View Research.

Meanwhile, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are seeing widespread adoption for goods transport applications. Earlier this year, automation market analysts ABI Research predicted that the global AMR market will grow from USD800 million in 2020 to a mind-blowing USD49 billion by 2030.

Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR) recently launched a pair of powerful AMRs designed to transport pallets and other heavy loads around manufacturing facilities, warehouses and logistics centres. With capacities of 600kg (1322.77 lb) and 1,350kg respectively, the new MiR600 and MiR1350 robots also come with IP52 rating, which provides dust and water drop tolerance.

Meanwhile, Circle K in Hong Kong has recently deployed 100 AMRs from Geek+ in its main distribution center, where more than one million products are handled every day. The deployment is designed to enhance productivity and accuracy while at the same time improving ergonomics for workers.

As the AMR market matures, a new market segment has emerged for mobile robotic equipment (MRE). MRE refers to top rollers/conveyors, lifters, and the other hardware that is used to support safe and effective AMR deployments.

Piece-picking is traditionally regarded as one of the more difficult tasks for robots to perform, especially when items are presented in cluttered bins and at different angles, which is often the case in busy warehouses. New technologies and approaches, especially advances in machine vision technology, are overcoming these challenges however.

Universal Robots’ ActiNav system, for example, combines cobot technology with intelligent vision and real-time autonomous motion control to deliver advanced bin-picking (and machine tending) capabilities.

Elsewhere, Ambi Robotics’ AmbiSort, which can sort items from chutes, totes, and bins, incorporates ‘simulation-to-reality’ artificial intelligence features, a depth sensing camera, and a suction-based gripper. Ambi Robotics raised USD6.1 million in seed funding in Q1 2021.

Artificial intelligence-enabled robots are appearing in warehouses and logistics facilities at unprecedented rates. Rian Whitton, a robotics industry analyst at ABI Research, estimates that 2,000 such robots have been deployed worldwide to date, mostly in pairs, but that over the next few years that number will rise to the tens of thousands, deployed ten at a time. (More: “A new generation of AI-powered robots is taking over warehouses”, MIT Technology Review, Aug 06, 2021)

Earlier this year Osaro Inc., a leader in the space, unveiled upgrades to its OSARO Solutions product suite, which combine software and advanced machine learning to provide flexible automation for busy warehouses. And in 2020, ABB announced a partnership with Covariant, starting with a fully autonomous warehouse order fulfilment solution.

De/Palletizing robots take on the dull and unergonomic de/palletizing tasks that companies either can’t find or don’t want human workers to perform. Typically deployed at the end of conveyor systems, these robots deliver massive improvements in throughput, productivity and ergonomics. The global palletizer market size was worth an estimated USD1.63 billion in 2019. That number is projected to reach USD2.16 billion by 2027, at a CAGR of 3.6%, according to a report from analysts Fortune Business Insights.

While collaborative robot-based systems, such as Robotiq’s cobot-powered palletizing solution (see video below) are quickly growing in popularity for these applications, 6-axis industrial robot arms and specialized robot palletizing systems, such as those developed by Stäubli, FANUC, and Applied Manufacturing Technologies are also proving extremely popular among hard pressed warehouse and logistics companies. 

Read more about AMRs:

Differences Between AGV & AMR

The Rise of Autonomous Mobile Robots

How to Choose the Right Robot Palletizing System

Robotic Palletizing - Simplifying Complex Warehouse Logistics

Bin-Picking Application In A University Lab