JLL, a leader in real estate services, recently put out a research paper called “The future of global logistics real estate.” The survey, conducted in April 2021, was completed by an impressive number of respondents – 720 logistics experts across 43 countries and territories.
One of the questions asked was “Which building design features will be important? Globally, 54% of respondents said that the use of automation and robotics would impact warehouse design. In the Americas, that number rose to 59% of respondents.
Warehouse Automation Comes in Many Different Forms
ARC studies the software and automation used in warehouses. With the explosion of ecommerce, warehouse automation experienced nearly double digit-growth among retailers. Among the different types of traditional warehouse automation – the automated guided vehicle (AGV) category was growing the fastest. AGVs travel along a static, fixed path.
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are essentially very smart AGVs. The AMR segment is growing much faster than traditional forms of automation. Autonomous mobile robots use artificial intelligence for advanced location, navigation, and perception. These robots travel along dynamic routes.
AMRs differ across several dimensions, including the processes they support and how they orchestrate workflows within a facility. But it is fair to say that a large majority of units deployed currently support the kind of picking done in ecommerce warehouses.
Ecommerce mobile robots take two major forms. A goods to man style, where a low to the ground bot goes into the warehouse and slides under a cubical rack and brings it back to a pack station. At the pack station, the bot turns so that the slot with the right item is facing the picker. The slot lights up, the picker selects the item or items, and puts them in a carton. Then the bot moves back into the central part of the warehouse until they are needed again.
There are also collaborative robots that work in concert with warehouse workers as they move through the warehouse.
How Will Robotics and Automation Impact Warehouse Design?
But how would the use of automation and robotics would impact warehouse design? The JLL study did not say. My colleague Clint Reiser and I this brainstormed a couple of answers.
Ecommerce Warehouses can be Short
Many warehouses built today in the US are 32 feet tall. If you look at the pictures of robots above, the new robotic solutions are not designed to support picking in tall walls of racking. The mobile racks that ride on goods to man bots max out at about 6 feet in height. The collaborative robots support racks that are eight feet high – that is how high a short worker can reach for a pick.
Many tall warehouses have mezzanine levels. Mezzanines are basically extra floors built on metal grids. AMRs have small wheels. They need floors that are smooth and level. Basically, tall warehouses are unnecessary for AMRs and the metal grid floors are counterproductive. eCommerce warehouses don’t need to be tall. As retail strip malls go out of business, these one-story buildings are the perfect building to retrofit for ecommerce bots.
New Warehouses Can be Economically Air Conditioned
The warehouse labor market is extremely tight. The government payments during the pandemic exacerbated that. But even without that, working in a warehouse is a low paid job involving manual labor. Few warehouses are air conditioned; working in warehouses can be miserable in the summer.
The goods to man robots make it more feasible to put air conditioning in warehouses. These robots run around in the central part of the warehouse; workers are not allowed in this section of the warehouse unless the bots are turned off. This part of the warehouse does not need air conditioning.
When an order needs to be fulfilled, the bots travel to packaging stations where people work. These stations represent less than 15 percent of the square footage of the warehouse. It would be possible to have robots move through doors that automatically open. The bots would travel from a part of the warehouse without people and with no air conditioning to the part of the warehouse where there are workers that is air conditioned.