Welcome to the future, where warehouses look like something from a sci-fi movie, and workers are made of plastic and metal. All of the world’s biggest companies are working to come up with high-tech, automated warehousing solutions that help streamline all sorts of tasks, from picking and packing to greeting visitors.
Warehouse automation is quickly becoming one of the hottest topics in shipping and logistics, and it’s not hard to see why. These pioneering machines are capable of doing, quite literally, the majority of the heavy lifting.
Most of these companies use what’s called picking automation systems. These machines — like Amazon’s now-famous Kiva robots — “pick” goods from warehouses and deliver them to the appropriate station for packaging and shipping.
With the help of fully automated crane systems, they’re also capable of handling large-scale storage jobs that help warehouses maximize often-unused airspace. Coupled with innovative technologies, like barcode and scanner automation, these warehouse systems are capable of more speed, precision, and output than a standard human worker.
But don’t let the new age of warehousing scare you! The majority of these automated systems are designed to work alongside humans.
In fact, many are designed to help reduce worker fatigue and prevent workplace injuries — and they still require many of the same industrial warehouse equipment and supplies that we sell at ExchangerHub.
Here are some of the top companies with the most innovative warehouse systems. As you’ll notice, most of these companies are neatly positioned on the Global 500 list — Fortune’s list of the largest companies in the world ranked by revenue — with billions of dollars between them.
That signifies not only that automation doesn’t come cheap, but also that it’s the private sector that’ll help sustain this sub-industry. With so many big-name brands investing in automation, it probably won’t be long until there are solutions available for every budget.
You simply can’t talk about innovative warehouses without mentioning the world’s largest online retailer. Amazon now employs 45,000 robots in its warehouse, which is about twice as many as it had two years ago.
As you may remember, Amazon bought robotics company Kiva Systems back in 2012, sparking a whole lot of interest surrounding warehouse automation. Kiva was able to bring products directly to employees, who would then pack and stow items. But don’t bank on the robot takeover quite yet; the company still employs more than 200,000 workers, many of whom work alongside Kiva.
Now, nearly six years later, Amazon claims to have removed a majority of the walking and searching for items within a warehouse with the help of Kiva. These little orange robots work alongside a variety of grippers, suction cups, and human workers to make one of the most efficient warehouses around.
Amazon also uses large, robotic arms to move pallets of inventory. And it’s working towards developing a whole slew of new, automated solutions to address common warehousing issues, like the ability for robots to work in environments that aren’t built precisely for them.
Amazon will host the third Amazon Robotics Challenge this year, which poses teams with the challenge of coming up with automated warehouse systems that can pick and stow in unstructured environments, like in areas where a robot may not be able to easily decode software. In other words, Amazon isn’t just implementing cutting-edge warehouse systems, but it’s also on the frontlines of development, too. All of these factors — coupled with its new automated drone delivery testing — will help Amazon reach its goal of being able to pack and deliver a package within 30 minutes.
Don’t you wish you had your very own robot to put together your IKEA furniture? Maybe someday the Swedish home décor giant will offer inexpensive robots to go with their beds and sofas, but for now we’ll have to go it the old-fashioned way. IKEA has innovated in terms of its warehouse automation, though, and uses plenty of high-tech automated equipment across its several warehouses.
For example, in the company’s Georgia warehouse — the newest of the fleet — IKEA uses an automated storage and retrieval system with 13 different cranes that are capable of taking advantage of the entire 100-foot ceiling space. Large-volume warehousing is particularly important for Ikea, with each of its stores holding more than 9,500 products. This system allows the retailer to fulfill most orders in just a day or less.
And, if you’ve ever been in an IKEA store, you know that they’re something like a mixture between a warehouse and a retail space, which means the company will have to come up with clever ways to automate up front, too. Large-scale, robotic cranes may soon help employees pick and pack certain items for customers within their warehouse-style stores, as well as in their packing, storage, and shipping facilities.
Would you expect the brain behind Tesla and SpaceX to have just any old factory or warehouse? Not a chance. Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced in 2014 that it would build a 1.9-million-square-foot production facility outside Reno, Nevada, to produce lithium-ion batteries for Tesla vehicles.
Sounds pretty standard, right? The Gigafactory is anything but, with high-tech robots that do everything from welcome guests to the factory (“welcome to Tesla!”) to moving materials between workstations.
Tesla’s robots were built by Adept Technology, Inc. and are classified as autonomous indoor vehicles (AIVs). These self-navigating wonders are notable among the company’s fleet of robotics because they’re able to freely navigate the factory, avoiding humans and other obstacles with the help of detecting sensors. Of course, like the Tesla itself, the Adept robot is self-charging — although it doesn’t need a human to guide it to its charging station — and can handle long workdays of up to 19 hours.
But there are even more robots building Tesla’s li-ion batteries. It also utilizes heavy-duty robotic arms by Kuka and Fanuc, two industrial robot manufacturers focusing on warehouse automation.
But perhaps the most impressive thing about the Gigafactory is that it’s powered by a 70-megawatt solar farm. The rooftop solar installation is seven times larger than the world’s next biggest one, and allows Tesla to produce its batteries without directly consuming any fossil fuels. Apt, we think!
Logistics company DHL is similar to Amazon in that it needed to find practical solutions for picking and packing its millions of parcels. Besides being a major supplier of courier, parcel and express mail services, DHL also operates DHL Supply Chain, which provides businesses with logistics solutions like transport, warehousing, and distribution. In other words, it benefits DHL’s bottom line in many ways to implement high-tech warehousing solutions, not only for its own company, but for others, too.
One of the coolest things about DHL’s automated warehouse is the use of automated order selectors (AOS) and other robotic handling devices that work alongside human employees for picking purposes. According to DHL, these robots take care of most of the physical work and then automatically drop off orders once they’re fully loaded.
This eliminates the need for workers to push or pull heavy equipment, and also allows them to work hands-free. DHL uses the EffiBOT system from the French robotics startup Effidence.
It also uses automatic palletizers, which are capable of stacking cases directly onto a wood pallet, as well as automatic storage and retrieval systems that lessen a human worker’s need to pick in the traditional manner. DHL’s automated solutions are equipped with high-resolution cameras and pressure sensors, with self-learning capabilities. This allows them to work closely alongside human workers.
This year, the company announced that it would test Locus Robotics’ LocusBots as a picker companion.
With Amazon aggressively moving into the grocery world with the purchase of Whole Foods earlier this year, it’s clear that the food realm is likely to see some major advancements in terms of automation and innovation in warehousing. But Midwest supercenter Meijer is already on the frontlines, with high-tech systems that automate once time-consuming and cumbersome jobs, like picking, sorting, and storing food.
Meijer uses what’s known as order picking machinery (OPM) developed by Witron Integrated Logistics. These machines effectively pick and pack items that arrive at the warehouse from distributors, and then stack them onto plastic pallets alongside other products to be transported to Meijer stores. The system is able to precisely measure and weigh the contents of the pallet, and also communicates with other pallets to prevent collisions.
The machinery then delivers the packed pallets to automated crane systems that place them into a high-bay warehouse that has the capacity to store up to 9,000 pallets! When a product is needed, a high-tech de-palletizing system is used to retrieve the appropriate goods. This type of automated warehouse is especially innovative in the grocery industry, since most facilities have a large number of SKUs that need to be constantly separated, stored, and shipped.
The engineers who developed LEGO’s automated warehousing system no doubt used the toys themselves to lay the foundation for their craft, or so we like to think. The supersized toy company, based in Denmark, has always been on the forefront of innovation. In fact, the iconic LEGO brick was named the “Toy of the Century” twice, so it should come as no surprise that the systems that make LEGOs are equally as forward-thinking.
LEGO’s Billund, Denmark factory is equipped with autonomous robots that are able to make 36,000 LEGO pieces per minute, for a grand total of over 19 billion per year! And let this sink in: many of those robots will make pieces that will go on to make LEGO robots someday (plus cars, castles, spaceships, and more).
But it’s not curious kids building the bricks themselves. It’s a team of high-tech robots that run completely autonomously.
The popular little blocks are transformed from multicolored plastic granules into the bricks we know and love with the help of over 1,000 machines that mold the blocks in under 10 seconds. A robotic car then collects the bins of finished blocks and transports them to a storage area, where an automated system transports the crates to a designated shelf. The robot-heavy factory is manned by just two human workers!
Coca-Cola is undoubtedly the biggest player in the soft drink game (it owns about 42.5 percent of the soft drink market), and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t immediately recognize the brand’s iconic red-and-white logo. With all this taken into account, it should come as no surprise that the world’s favorite soda has upped its game with some high-tech warehousing solutions that pump out more Coke faster than ever.
One of the greatest challenges facing Coke is the fact that it requires large amounts of storage space. Working with System Logistics, the company developed a new solution to this problem for its Italian plant. System Logistics implemented the company’s first fully automated warehouse in Nogara, Italy, in 2011, using a modular order picking system (MOPS) that sorts and picks cases of beverages and then organizes them with the help of a stacker crane, which stores pallets in a high-bay warehouse to eliminate the need for much floor-level storage.
Coke is expanding these exciting new technologies to other corners of the globe, too. Earlier this year, Coke announced that it would work with Swisslog — a Swiss company specializing in automated warehousing equipment — to develop a “flexible, robotic, data-driven automated warehouse” in its Malaysia plant. The system also includes intelligent software, which will help to synchronize the equipment, robotics, and human workforce.