The Semi-Automated Warehouse: A Task-Based Approach to Automation

Warehouse automation is a major trend in the logistics industry, but the fact is that around 80 percent of fulfillment centers have yet to begin an automation journey. Maybe that’s because we tend to discuss automation as an all-or-nothing proposition; either you commit to smart warehousing with a greenfield construction or you’re stuck with manual order picking forever. This approach isn’t strictly accurate. Even worse, it presents an extremely high barrier to entry that may deter adoption of transformative — and accessible — technologies.

A Task-Based Approach to Automation (1)

The truth is that automation is a spectrum. You don’t have to convert to fully automated systems, scrapping legacy processes that continue to provide value. Today’s automation technologies emphasize scalability, providing modular, task-specific solutions that scale up or down as throughput fluctuates.

The best way to start automating logistics processes isn’t necessarily to build a fully automated warehouse from the ground up; it’s often to develop existing facilities into semi-automated warehouses. By focusing on isolated tasks and processes, warehouse managers can ramp up automation at their own pace, seizing the low-hanging fruit first for immediate productivity gains with the lowest initial investment.

Keep reading to learn what a semi-automated warehouse is, the technologies that make it possible, and a few ways to start the conversion to automated warehousing — one process at a time.

What is a semi-automated warehouse?

A semi-automated warehouse is a storage facility or distribution center that operates with a mixture of automated systems and traditional, human-driven work. To understand the semi-automated warehouse, it helps to know the basics of logistics automation more broadly. There are two general categories of warehouse automation:

  1. Digital process automation frees human staff from repetitive data management tasks. It operates within (and between) software environments like warehouse management systems (WMS), warehouse control systems (WCS), and enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions. These digital automation systems handle day-to-day management tasks, from data processing to verification to analytics, often with artificial intelligence (AI) that helps to ensure accuracy.
  2. Material handling automation is what most of us think of when we hear the term “warehouse automation.” It entails the use of self-guided machinery to complete material handling tasks without a human operator.

In a fully automated warehouse — and in some semi-automated warehouses — these two types of automation are deeply interconnected. With wifi-connected sensors within and surrounding material handling equipment, physical systems can maintain a constant stream of process data, which software infrastructure can use to trigger further automated tasks. For instance, an automated packaging robot may include automatic identification and data capture (AIDC) capabilities, such as a radio frequency identification system (RFID) or a scanner for QR codes; this system captures order data from SKUs and/or shipping containers. Through a wireless network, the robot can forward package data to a WCS, which updates the order location and sends a notification to the customer automatically. This connection between physical machinery, process data, and software systems is often described as the Industrial Internet of Things.

The piece-by-piece approach to automation we describe in this guide to semi-automated warehousing focuses more on automated material handling than process automation, which is typically more all-encompassing and treads into management strategy territory. So from here on out, w

e’ll be discussing material handling automation — and how you can use it to go from a traditional distribution center to a semi-automated warehouse.

An Introduction to Semi-Automated Warehouse Equipment

Semi-automated warehouses range from near-full automation to largely traditional facilities with just one or two automated processes. Regardless of the scale of automation, these operations rely on a few broad categories of robotic technology. These include:

1. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)

Originally designed for in-plant transportation in the manufacturing industry, AGVs are driverless conveyance machines that follow predetermined routes using rails, wave-emitting wires embedded in floors, optical guidance, and other navigation systems. Warehousing AGVs may come in many forms, including:

  • Unit Load Carrying AGVs - These autonomous vehicles feature decks designed to carry unit loads without the need for trailers or other material handling equipment.
  • Forked AGVs - Essentially driverless lift trucks, forked AGVs handle pallet loads or other units equipped with fork pockets.
  • Load-Towing AGVs - Ideal for creating material handling trains with multiple Warehouse Trailers, these driverless tuggers don’t handle loads onboard, but tow load-carrying carts throughout the facility.

2. Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)

Autonomous mobile robots function similarly to AGVs, but with intelligent navigation systems that free them from the AGV’s reliance on predetermined routes. An AMR uses cameras, sensors, and/or laser scanners to navigate changing landscapes without external guidance systems, along with route-planning software to plot the most efficient path from one point to another. Because of this smart navigation, AMRs may provide a lower cost to implement than traditional AGVs, which require modifications to facility flooring to follow their routes.

Autonomous mobile robots for warehouses can be equipped with load decks, lifting forks, or tow hitches to create material handling trains. Their application is similar to that of AGVs, but they’re more flexible and potentially more scalable thanks to their auto-navigation capabilities.

3. Robotic Palletizers/Depalletizers

Building and unloading pallets is a labor-intensive warehouse task. Without ergonomic equipment like Pallet Carousel & Skid Positioners, it can also increase the risk of musculoskeletal disorders among staff. Robotic palletizers and depalletizers remove these risks while improving productivity.

These machines use robotic arms to transfer units from pallets onto carts or conveyor systems, or to do the opposite, building pallet-loads one layer at a time. They may also feature computer vision systems to identify SKUs of different shapes and sizes.

4. Automated Storage & Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)

At the further end of warehouse automation, AS/RS solutions both store and retrieve products for goods-to-person order picking and packing strategies. These comprehensive systems incorporate a variety of technologies — mechanized shelving, cranes, vertical lift modules, and shuttles, as well as software systems that track the location of each SKU for retrieval — to select and deliver orders to pickers or packers.

In a fully automated warehouse, AS/RS is often the central technology. But it’s also possible to integrate AS/RS units into more traditional applications, creating a semi-automated warehouse.

Automating Material Handling Tasks in the Semi-Automated Warehouse

1. Material Transportation

Perhaps the most labor-intensive task in the traditional warehouse is physically moving materials within the facility. Material flow occurs between each of the stages of the product journey, from moving inbound shipments into storage to getting orders to packing stations. The frequency of transportation within a warehouse makes it a great place to start implementing material handling automation — without installing facility-wide fixed systems like automated conveyors.

To create a highly scalable intralogistics transportation system, consider a material handling train strategy. With a minimal investment in AGVs or AMRs, warehouse operators can harness existing Warehouse Trailers to automate material flow. For even greater flexibility, stock a fleet of BHS Industrial Trailers, which double as tow carts and manual trucks to fit any material handling requirement.

2. Order Picking

Order picking is ideal for the robot-human collaborations that characterize the semi-automated warehouse. For instance, a collaborative picker aid system uses AGVs or AMRs to fill orders in concert with zone-based human order pickers. The robot downloads a pick list, then travels to each indicated aisle in turn.

At each location, an order picker grabs the SKU from the storage bin and places it on the vehicle or a tugger trailer, scanning it to indicate a completed pick. After the automated vehicle collects all the items on its list, it travels to a packing station, ready to complete the next wave of orders. This approach speeds up both picking and transportation, and has the ergonomic advantage of limiting staff movement from aisle to aisle.

3. Order Packing

Warehouses that assemble and ship pallet loads may use robotic palletizers to complete this task. But given the continual growth of e-commerce and a consumer base that’s demanding same-day shipping, many semi-automated warehouses will inevitably be e-commerce fulfillment centers. It’s difficult to fully automate packing in this application — but a goods-to-person strategy anchored by mobile robotics can help packing operations keep up with higher throughput.

With goods-to-person automation, employees can stay posted at a packing station while AMRs deliver orders on a regular schedule. This approach helps to lower the cost-per-pick for every SKU, and it allows order packers to remain stationary, reducing ergonomic risks associated with lifting and carrying.

Integrating Automated and Human-Powered Systems

Semi-automated warehouses are characterized by a mix of autonomous and human-operated machinery — and that equipment often works together to improve throughput and workplace safety at once. We’ve already mentioned a prime example: the combination of automated tuggers with Industrial Trailers that can shift to support manual material handling as needed.

You may also install variable-height work surfaces like Scissor Lift Tables to simplify the transfer of items from unit load-carrying AGVs and AMRs; tabletop attachments include Ball Transfer, Roller Conveyor, and Turntable features to help material flow from automated systems to manual handling. These are just a few ways to start the conversion from traditional facility to semi-automated warehouse. To learn more about how material handling equipment supports automation, contact the BHS sales team at 1.800.BHS.9500.