Smart warehouses smarter output

Smart warehouses smarter output

The rapid growth of e-commerce in the past few years are propelling warehouse operations towards the adoption of robotics enabled automation systems. From mere brick and mortar shelters or godowns to highly sophisticated stockrooms, the warehousing industry is getting a quick makeover.

Shreya Bhattacharya

India’s warehousing industry is undergoing a sea change, keeping pace with the emerging manufacturing sector and the diverse logistics industry. With the roll-out of the goods and services tax and real estate investments, the warehousing industry is looking at brighter days ahead. According to industry experts, GST will ensure that India, for the first time, will see consolidated large space central warehousing parks instead of the current scattered standalone facilities. This will give the industry an added advantage to look at more investments in the large warehouses and also in modernising the facility with state of the art technology.

Also, the entry of e-commerce in India has brought in volume business to the warehouse industry. This rapid growth has brought in a new set of challenges. Lack of skilled workforce, delays in transportations, etc. made the stakeholders to look beyond conventional approaches, towards the adoption of robotics enabled automation systems. From mere brick and mortar shelters or godowns to highly sophisticated stockrooms, the warehousing industry is thus getting a quick makeover. It is critical that the warehousing players regularly evaluate and adopt cutting edge technology so that their organisations are thoroughly future proofed and have the edge over the competition, say industry experts.

“Looking at the current warehousing landscape, Indian storage sector will be more exploratory for newer technologies to improve operational efficiency. There is enormous pressure on them from the market for value addition and patterning as an extended arm of the customers. They will surely look for newer and innovative solutions in IT and automation,” believes Ashwin Dravid, Sales Director at Armstrong Machine Builders.

Armstrong, which is a system integrator and provides warehousing solutions, observes that warehousing companies today look beyond just labour reduction as ROI (Return on investment) and are increasingly considering other aspects such as customer experience, operational efficiency as drivers for automation.

Dravid further says, “There is still a long way to go as far as warehousing modernisation is concerned in India as it is just taking off. We are now seeing that MNCs are focusing on setting up warehouses keeping automation in mind while it was an afterthought in the recent past. The efficiency of a logistics company is directly proportional to the facilities its warehouse is equipped with. A well-organized warehouse can bring down the total logistics cost by 15 – 20 percent.”

Recently, Future Group CEO Kishor Biyani and Union Minister Nitin Gadkari launched a highly automated distribution centre in Nagpur (MIHAN). It is run by a technology developed by Beumer group, India, called High-Speed Cross Belt Sortation Technology. This massive Future group warehouse is spread over 4 lakh square feet of area and has a volume of 8 lakh square feet. The facility stores and sorts the merchandise that goes to over 1000 Big Bazaar outlets in India. It has automated conveyor belts sending the right commodity to the right place. This centre, which went operational four years ago, already had a semi-automated conveyor system but the new system has set a new benchmark by making the sorting three times faster. It comprises of a 12 metres high spiral conveyor, which is tallest in the country, with approximately 2.5 kilometers of the conveyor system. This infrastructure can sort 40,000 cases per day which translate to 360 crore pieces per annum.

It is therefore quite evident that automation is changing paradigms in traditional warehouse operations.

Technologies in trend There are myriad warehouse automation solutions in the market. Talking about solutions that are in trend, Venky Nayar, COO, Autoplant Systems India says, “Some of the solutions that are in the pipeline include geo-tagging of orders, bins and deliveries linked with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) and automated forecasting of the demand and replenishment.”

Some recent technological trends creating a buzz are warehouse management systems (WMS) with EDI (Electronic Data Interchange), robotics and wearables,” he further adds.

Embassy Industrial Parks, which addresses the challenges of companies grappling with the management of warehousing spaces, sees Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC) technology, gaining momentum in the industry. “Technology for the logistics and warehousing industry has come a long way, while bar code readers are still widely used, newer inventions like Quick Response (QR) Code are becoming popular to encode data to computer-compatible digital data, and accelerate the flow of a shipment among its beneficiaries. Recent advances in automation industry have led to the emergence of a new breed of ‘intelligent’ robots that represent the future of warehouse automation,” shares Anshul Singhal, CEO, Embassy Industrial Parks.

Apart from this, IT, Machine learning, industry 4.0 picking technologies with inclusive WMS coupled with apt material handling automation such as ASRS (automatic storage and retrieval), sortation, powerful identification, lorry loading and unloading systems were some other technological solutions mentioned by Dravid. Exuding confidence, Dravid further says that robots will make inroads into the Indian warehouses sooner than expected.

Jayem Warehousing, a unit of Jayem Logistics, is an experienced 3PL company with all India presence, having more than 50+ warehouse locations in 20+ cities. Puneet Prakash, Director, Jayem Logistics talks about the latest technological trends that the company has adopted to modernise its warehouses in India. “(a) Real-time RF Scanning – This provides us with the instantaneous information we need about quantity, cycle-count, and location of the product apart from preventing shipping errors. (b) Slip Sheet Pallet and Push-Pull attachment – These sheets are light, hygienic, wood free and 100 percent recyclable which helps us in saving on freight and handling. (c) VPN connectivity with warehouses – which ensures improved security, productivity and scalability (d) EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) – wherein information is transmitted efficiently and swiftly.”

Venky Nayar elaborated on the future of automation by saying “RFID is going to be combined with drone technology to automate the inventory management further. By attaching a reader to the drone, the inventory can be catalogued at a much quicker pace and stacked at much higher levels than with manual stacking. From counting stock to executing last mile deliveries, drones will bring about a revolution. Some other technologies include voice tasking technologies and wearable technologies which are hands - free and use spoken commands / visual fields for carrying out the warehousing functions. Robots play a vital role in improving levels of automation. The use of vision guided robots can bring about a radical transformation in logistics.”

Meanwhile, e-commerce giant, Amazon, which has committed an investment of $5 billion in the Indian market, is investing in automated warehouses across India. It recently set up seven new warehouses (Fulfilment Centres or FCs) to cater exclusively to its large appliances and furniture category. Amazon is among the first few companies, who experimented with robotics in their warehouses. Its Kiva robot continues to amaze with its picking and packing process capabilities at large warehouses. The robot brought a change in perception and made robotics and automation, the buzzwords in the warehousing sector. Amazon has recently patented a technology to have physical warehouses hovering in the sky assisted with drones to take care of last mile delivery.

Robots to the Rescue There is no denying the fact that robots cut workforce need and increase efficiency. They do the walking, don’t require health insurance, lunch breaks, or vacations. They can work 24/7 and don’t need training.

While robots are widely used in manufacturing and assembling, the warehousing sector had remained technologically starved for a long time. However, the advancements in artificial intelligence are gradually introducing us with the smart counterparts of the “dumb robots” that had been around for performing repetitive tasks.

Ark Robot, for instance, a product of iFuture Robotics, took formal birth in 2016. It is an autonomous mobile robot that can navigate to any location in a known environment. It can lift pallets and crates holding products, and transport these to any location. The robot can also perform automatic storage and retrieval tasks in large warehouses. A single installation can consist from 10 to a few hundred robots. These robots are intelligent and can talk to each other. According to reports, Ark Robot has already won a few of the top 10 big e-commerce customers, and the company is in talks with more companies.

With a gradual shift of mind in the Indian warehousing industry from traditional ways of handling goods to shifting gear to robotics, huge potentials in the robotics market have opened in India, giving way to new budding robot makers to collaborations among big companies.

GreyOrange, a multinational robotics firm recently announced its collaboration with Godrej Storage Solutions, wherein Godrej will exclusively market and distribute GreyOrange’s Pick-Put-To-Light (PPTL) solution to the supply chain and logistics industry in India. GreyOrange PPTL solution is a proprietary light-based guiding system for accurate and efficient pick, put-away or sorting processes designed for fast-moving and complex warehouses to help companies eliminate operational inefficiencies.

With growth in the sectors of manufacturing, automotive, retail and FMCG in India, there is an ever increasing demand for industrial automation solutions. The market for shuttle retrieval systems and automated storage, industrial robotic manipulator, mobile robot platforms, and gantry robots is experiencing strong growth.

Some of the robotic technologies to mention are: collaborative robots, automated guided vehicle, Cartesian robots, autonomous mobile robot, localization, laser guided vehicle, omnichannel retailing, material handling robots, palletizing robots, packaging robots, robotized item picking, pallet shuttle system, obstacle avoidance, vision guided vehicle, self-driving vehicle and navigation autonomy.

However, it is important to mention that challenges of skill gaps of trained human workforce, high initial cost of implantation in robotic infrastructure, highly complex supply chain systems are some of the challenges yet to be sorted before the Indian warehousing industry wholeheartedly accepts the technology.

India’s willingness to deploy capital on automation has only been increasing. Over the last decade, there is a sea change in the level of automation and growth of skilled workforce to supplement the same. Anshul Singhal of Embassy Industrial Parks, however, points out that there is a need for strong support at the policy level. “Both on import duties of machinery to finally offering enough incentive to manufacture and produce automation technologies on Indian soil. We are seeing the entry of more organised players in this highly fragmented space.

Warehousing in India is likely to get a big boost from GST implementation and explosive growth in manufacturing, auto, e-commerce segment. There are also industrial, and freight corridors are mushrooming across the country which will increase the number of organised players in the warehousing and industrial parks. These players are more than willing to take up automation to benefit from higher returns on their investments.”