Warehouse Automation: Is a Dark Warehouse Really Possible?

Imagine a warehouse that runs 100 percent autonomously. Human workers are available for emergencies, but they don’t interact much with key systems, and they certainly don’t unload materials, pick orders, or handle other manual tasks. Thanks to automation, costs drop; robots can work just as efficiently in hot and cold temperatures, and they can perform their tasks around the clock.

Warehouse Automation: Is a Dark Warehouse Really Possible?

To the general public, this seems like an inevitability. The rise of automation has prompted excitement (and concerns) about “dark warehouses,” sites that are fully autonomous. 

But while the warehousing industry is trending towards more automation, truly dark warehouses are currently science fiction. Warehouse managers should understand how new technologies can help them address worker shortages and other challenges — but they should also recognize that fully autonomous warehouses won’t upend the logistics industry anytime soon. 

Current Robots Facilitate Product Flow, But Have Serious Limitations

Processes that are repetitive and mechanical can be easily automated. If a warehouse has an extremely limited set of products, order picking robots are not only a viable alternative to human workers, but they may be preferable. 

However, current-generation robots are unable to apply human judgment to unconventional situations. If a product has a missing barcode, an order-picking robot might mistakenly identify the product as “out of stock;” alternatively, it might confuse two similar products or ignore products that aren’t in their expected locations. 

Artificial intelligence may help to make warehouse robots more versatile. The key word here is “more:” The capabilities of A.I. systems are tied to their training data, and effectively training warehouse robots may be challenging. Current-generation A.I. can generate images by studying hundreds of thousands of similar images — but there’s not the same amount of data about human decision-making in warehousing logistics. 

Industrial Trailer

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

Even the “Darkest" Warehouses Rely on Human Labor

Amazon, a leader in warehouse automation, utilizes 750,000 robots in its facilities. The company claims that the robots have improved workplace safety and optimized storage utilization, but the bots certainly haven’t replaced human employees: Amazon has about 1.5 million full-time and part-time employees worldwide.

And Amazon has the resources to tackle one of the major problems with dark warehousing: heavy upfront costs. Robots are expensive, and the more they’re customized for key tasks, the more they cost on day one. 

Related: Automated Warehouse Logistics: Plan for Supportive Material Handling Equipment

For Warehouse Managers, The Best Approach Is Gradual Automation

A truly dark warehouse is not realistic in 2024, and may not be possible for quite a long time. But that doesn’t mean that warehouses should ignore opportunities to automate.

At BHS, we’ve engineered products that are compatible with both autonomous and piloted equipment, providing warehouses with a longer runway for transitioning towards automation. Vertical Reciprocating Conveyor

The Industrial Trailers (IT), for example, combines features of stock carts and tugger trailers to provide versatile material handling for line feeding, order picking, and other intralogistics tasks. Industrial Trailers are compatible with automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), but can also connect to tow trailers — or move manually throughout facilities. 

Additionally, we can customize any piece of material handling equipment to meet the unique needs of our clients. That might mean custom Vertical Reciprocating Conveyors (VRCs) for lifting AGVs in multi-level facilities or specialized Tilt Tables to optimize efficiency for human-led order packing and unpacking. 

The goal of every equipment investment is to increase productivity and prepare your facility for long-term success. As automation becomes a more powerful tool, BHS can help you take full advantage of the technology — and maintain excellent throughput in the meantime.

To learn more, read about custom equipment from BHS or contact the BHS Sales Department today at 1.800.247.9500.