Author: Christine Estevez Jun 28, 2023 5 Min READ

Getting Started with Robotics and Wearable Tech for the Novice 3PL Warehouse

5 Min READ
Getting Started with Robotics and Wearable Tech for the Novice 3PL Warehouse

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According to Gartner research, 95% of supply chain organizations say they have invested, or plan to invest, in robotics automation. This includes three of the most popular broad categories of robots used in the fulfillment and distribution centers, including mobile robots (AMRs), picking robots, and engineered robotic systems.

With robotics investments seeing a lower price of entry and faster time to value than ever before, even the novice third-party logistics (3PL) warehouse may be in a better position to make the business case for this type of investment.  

As the cost of entry decreases, the ability to scale up or down and the ease of integrating these solutions into existing WMS or ERP systems are also accelerating the pace of adoption.

Getting Started with Wearables

Many 3PL warehouses today are still behind in their technology. It’s often still the case that employees need to travel to and from their workstations to get access to important data, taking up valuable time and resulting in delayed tasks that may slow down the overall operations of the warehouse.

Wearables can reduce repetitive and manual tasks for employees, enabling hands-free receiving, putaway, picking, and packing, which can greatly increase speed while maintaining accuracy. This data can automatically flow back to a warehouse management system (WMS), enabling seamless information transfer and greatly improved visibility into what employees are doing in the warehouse.  

Newer generations of voice control headsets can use WiFi so that, combined with location detection, they can provide for much more flexible applications (for example, implementing QR codes on parts, ingredients, or along process steps to improve traceability and help maintain inventories). Because WiFi modules are now inexpensive, allow for easy setup of applications, and integrate easily with existing network security, they will most likely be the better option for manufacturers looking to get started with wearable tech.  

Another example of wearable tech is devices that can be worn on your wrist, similar to the fitness band. Instead of using clunky barcode scanners, employees could use their smart watch to easily update locations and quantities of inventories. The pedometer technology in the fitness bands may also measure efficiency and ergonomics by tracking the steps required to execute particular operations, which is a data point that warehouse managers can feed back into a WMS system to optimize labor efficiency.  

This data can then be used to further optimize the storage locations of tools, parts, or inventory in order to minimize movement across the warehouse floor, reducing processing times. The GPS functionality in these devices may improve safety for workers as location-based applications can automatically shut down robots or machines when employees are in danger, such as stopping a forklift that is coming around a blind corner.  

More Advanced Uses of Wearable Tech Devices

Headsets, in the form of smart glasses, serve to increase workers’ accuracy by enabling them to visually confirm inventory via scanning. Using these devices can also decrease training lead times, improve quality rates, and improve operational efficiency.

Pick-by-vision, a feature enabled through smart glasses, not only enables operators to be free from stationary terminals and paper documentation but provides safety and ergonomic benefits by allowing operators to be hands-free.  

AI-enabled wearable tech devices have another benefit in that they can help warehouses improve safety conditions for their workers by reducing work-related injuries. Employee biometrics can be monitored to identify which operations or situations cause excessive exertion on an operator and could potentially result in a future injury.

In the United States, workplace-related injuries or illnesses cost employers more than $220 billion (about $680 per person in the US) dollars every year, not including the impact on costs associated with insurance services. Because of this, AI-wearable technology and training programs that target the reduction of pain, injuries, and absenteeism in the workforce may be laying the groundwork for the worker safety policies of the future.

Types and Benefits of Autonomous Robots

Robots can range from those that work alongside employees, called collaborative robots or cobots, to mobile robots that perform tasks for employees.  

Cobots work with employees to perform tasks that are difficult, repetitive, or time-consuming, such as inventory counting. For example, robots can lift heavy objects or robotic arms can speed up the packing process, saving employees from performing repetitive manual tasks. Movement-related capabilities include pallet movement, carts, movement of shelving and racking, among others.

Mobile robots can perform more advanced tasks like picking, packing, and putting away inventory. On-board sensors, maps, and processing systems allow them to plan routes and adapt dynamically to changes in their environment. Autonomous Guided Vehicles (or AGVs) are often like forklifts but can be automated, self-driving on a preset route, moving product from one area of the warehouse to another.  

Many robots can send inventory data back to your WMS in real-time, as well as enhance productivity and efficiency by increasing the speed of work and maximizing space in the warehouse by optimizing inventory.

Before considering robotics vendors, JLL suggests warehouse owners consider the facility design, footprint, scale, and the overall integration use cases for your warehouse. To take full advantage of the move from people-driven to automated picking activities, experts suggest first mapping out the types of picking use cases and order volumes appropriate for these types of robots, then redesign processes and target the right products.  

Making the Business Case for New Technology Investments

The average price of an industrial robot has dropped from about $46,000 in 2010 to $27,000 in 2017 and is forecast to dip further to less than $10,900 by 2025 due to lower technology costs, according to data portal Statista.  

When does it make sense to spend on automated technology for scalability? Warehouse managers should ask the following questions:

1. Will this investment decrease my overhead spend in other areas?

Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) are two of the most widely used semi-automation technologies that are fast gaining traction, in part due to falling costs. To lower the risks of implementation for warehouse owners, some investors and developers are providing Robots as a Service (RaaS), which could enable a 3PL to lease robots—typically AGVs and AMRs—rather than purchasing them. This may offset the initial upfront costs while providing flexibility for many small to mid-size enterprises, as well as 3PL providers who need more flexible semi-automated solutions.

2. Will this increase customer retention and satisfaction?

With technology automation, employees can focus on higher value work, as opposed to spending time on tedious manual tasks. Repurpose that time into closing more business and providing excellent customer service.

3. How does this improve efficiency and help me scale?

Automating via cobots or AGVs might enable warehouses to scale with fewer workers, reduce costly manual errors and lower the risk of injury to warehouse workers. This is important to consider when calculating total cost of ownership and time to value for your investment.

Why You Need a WMS–How Extensiv Can Help

Today, 3PLs are under greater pressure than ever before to reduce costs and optimize productivity while staying in compliance with service level agreements (SLAs) and communicating with their customers.  

A comprehensive WMS is the glue that holds systems of devices together. Data captured by robotic, IoT, and wearable devices can be stored and analyzed in a WMS. Many WMS systems offer built-in and custom business intelligence reporting, which can be used to track inventory, employee productivity, and fulfillment processes based on data captured by wireless tools.

A WMS can not only capture and store data, but also turn inputs from other devices into valuable output in the form of automated customer communications, employee alerts, and stock notifications.

Explore how cost-effective your warehouse can be with Labor Analytics from Extensiv. Labor Analytics is a powerful reporting dashboard in our cloud-based warehouse management system, 3PL Warehouse Manager. We help 3PLs transform paper-based, error-prone businesses into efficient operations using a suite of technology. Request a demo today or listen in on what industry experts have to say about how Extensiv can put the power of data in your hands to drive labor efficiencies and profits. 

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