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Trending: Dark Warehouses and Warehouse Automation

As we continue to see the spread of COVID-19 despite national lockdown efforts around the world, things are changing.

Freelancing is on the rise. Additionally, the demand for automation and contactless shopping and delivery options is growing at an all-time high. Companies all over the world are looking at new ways to bring automation to the forefront as they rethink traditional distribution systems. 

We believe that one of the emerging practices moving forward will focus more on automation and less on mass amounts of employees who have the chance to man-handle large quantities of packages with the potential to spread disease. 

This article will uncover some new information around warehouses, including dark warehouses and automation. We’re going to start with looking at the future and how industries may change, which could drastically impact e-commerce operations moving forward.

A warehouse in China
A warehouse in China

What is a dark warehouse?

Dark warehouses are fully automated warehouse facilities and are equipped to handle equipment, execute on systems, item and inventory identification and even package orders. 

‘Dark’ in the name refers to a lack of human touch in the industry, meaning that the warehouse wouldn’t necessarily need the lights switched on, as machines can work in the dark without any struggle. You can think of it as total automation – something like what Amazon has been striving towards but has not yet achieved. 

As we’ve already mentioned, it’s currently incredibly difficult for every player in a supply chain to social distance or isolate, because many logistics workers work together in crowded areas.

Added to that, automation is not new in the industry, but it’s becoming more necessary than ever as workers need to self-isolate. Two of the main ways to alleviate this problem within logistics operations is to introduce staggered work hours or increase automation. 

One example of a dark warehouse is at ‘the hive’ or ‘the grid’, a colossal structure located in Andover, a small English town. It’s essentially a giant chessboard with robots for pieces. It’s owned by Ocado, a British online-only store which sells technology to other supermarket chains.

At full capacity, it can process around 65000 orders or 3.5 million individual items per week. Some of the tasks that ‘the grid’ accomplishes are rather basic, such as lifting, moving, and sorting – taking the need for physical labour away.

Ocado's 'Hive'. Image from Ocado.
Ocado’s ‘Hive’. Image from Ocado.

Why should we move towards automation or a dark warehouse?

We can see that warehouses have already been moving toward automation in the last decade. It’s now believed that warehouse machines or robots will play a fundamental role in changing the way inventories are handled in the future.

It seems that what will be needed is not a pair of human hands, but rather a software-integrated robot. These robots know where any item is located at any point in time. However, they should also be able to interact with human workers in real-time, as it would be tricky to leave your entire set-up in the hands of robots. 

It seems that what will be needed is not a pair of human hands, but rather a software-integrated robot. These robots know where any item is located at any point in time. However, they should also be able to interact with human workers in real-time, as it would be tricky to leave your entire set-up in the hands of robots. 

However, the value of automated robots is that social distancing can be achieved in a warehouse which prioritises their a prominence. Robots could replace workers on specific shifts, allowing human workers to achieve better social distancing than without robots.

Covid workers

While this may sound scary, it’s also true that robots are efficient and precise while working, which can help make logistics processes more streamlined. 

Following the aftermath of COVID-19, gone are the days of loading masses of workers into a large distribution centre due to rampant global health concerns. It may be time to start considering integrating robots alongside warehouse staff in order to help workers become more tech-savvy, too.

It’s time to rethink traditional supply chain models, where one person can literally infect the entire chain!

Transitioning: Now and then

At present, there’s a global spike in eCommerce sales volumes, as people decide to stay home. This trend is predicted to continue for the time being, which would further the case for acquiring warehouse automation.

Complex supply chains are susceptible to becoming fragile under certain conditions, like the coronavirus. Even so, it will still take some time before companies can be fully automated.

According to information from the USA, around 70% of warehouse managers agreed that they are looking into automation technology for their operations or are planning on doing so within the next few years.  

Warehouse of products

The future of robots

Even before COVID-19 became the problem that it is today, the integration of robotics, automated package/shipping handling, artificial intelligence (AI), voice-controlled technology, and other advanced technologies into warehouses and larger distribution centers was steadily growing.

This is driven by the increasing need for businesses to manage high-volume operations despite limited and susceptible labourers – while still catering to the growing demands that are caused by eCommerce and a global trend towards online shopping.

The World Economic Forum has now claimed that COVID-19 can be seen as a ‘game-changer’ with regards to robot workers, and is unpacking the many uses that robots can have for businesses.

These include taking temperatures of people, measuring the patient blood pressure and oxygen saturation. They can also travel quickly around hospitals, emitting an ultraviolet light to detect the virus.

‘Robots’ can also be sent to deliver food and other goods to people who are quarantined or even transport blood samples between laboratories and hospitals. 

Delivering during COVID
Delivering during COVID

On the serious side of things, robots can be used for population control- in acting as drones, as well as enforcing stay-at-home violations, automating public testing programmes and supporting and tracking the transmission of the virus.

It may be true that robots and their inventors could carve themselves a permanent place in the fight against tackling future health concerns.

Robotics were already on a growth trajectory before the pandemic hit, and firms have won significant investments – in the region of around $29 billion for investment and acquisition for firms. 

Most of this funding was aimed towards autonomous passenger vehicles or fully automatic self-driving cars, surgical robot assistance, warehouse automation, and drone services.

What can we learn from dark warehouses?

The experience of using robots during COVID-19’s pandemic creates an opportunity for businesses to learn a lot about logistics and supply chain operations and their subsequent routines over the past decade.

It’s important to note that robots can’t replace the human touch of people. However, automation can help with things that humans can’t do, like making working spaces safer for humans, or taking on more strenuous tasks to decrease human workloads. 

Robots currently used to treat coronavirus patients have not and should not replace health care professionals, but can enable health care workers to apply their expertise and knowledge more consistently and remotely.

Some of the uses for health care robots include taking remote blood samples and performing mouth swabs, which could help increase the momentum of robotics moving forward if new diseases ultimately come forward. 

Warehouse supply chain
Warehouse supply chain

In the world of logistics and supply chains, automation together with humans is crucial to accomplish the required speed, efficiency and momentum to meet growing demands from global markets.

This technology will also help keep the lines of supply moving during periods of turbulence like we’re facing right now.

The future of supply chain operations will have to improve responsiveness and strategic change in order to remain operable regardless of difficult circumstances. 

Among these changes, we can expect more dark warehouses, as well automated robots in warehouses, as previously discussed. The greatest change will not come from firing all human workers, but through replacing processes that can assist workers existing workloads, or fulfilling tasks that humans cannot do.

Mobile robots are agile and can navigate exceptionally well throughout the warehouse, using built-in sensors and laser scanners to fetch items for workers.

Autonomous mobile robots or AMRs can walk around obstacles surrounding them and can adjust to new layouts and patterns. They are not static or fixed in one place, so they can now adapt to complex warehouse layouts to work seamlessly with humans. 

Autonomous mobile robots or AMRs can walk around obstacles surrounding them and can adjust to new layouts and patterns. They are not static or fixed in one place, so they can now adapt to complex warehouse layouts to work seamlessly with humans. 

COVID is a real threat to warehouses.
COVID is a real threat to warehouses.

Conclusion

We’re not going to find that robots are instantly going to replace human workers in warehouses and distribution centres. However, robots could certainly help by improving fulfilment – in eliminating redundant, physically strenuous and taxing labour by doing it efficiently and quickly.

Robotics was on the rise before the pandemic hit, and the demand for their use in warehouses is not going to die down any time soon. Intelligent automation can speed up the distribution of items throughout the world, freeing up humans to work on other tasks that can highlight human strengths.

There’s a place for robots in many other fields too, such as assisting vulnerable doctors and other healthcare professionals, helping with national control measures such as drones and enforcing orders, and helping e-commerce stores fulfil their deliveries around the world.

We can also help you if you’ve got an e-commerce store, too.

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