How (Decoupled) Robotic Solutions Free Up Warehouse Workers

How (Decoupled) Robotic Solutions Free Up Warehouse Workers

The fulfillment world is on the cusp of a new robotic revolution. Adding an autonomous mobile robot (AMR) fleet to your distribution center is one of the most powerful productivity steps you can take this year. Whether your goal is to cut fulfillment costs or increase fulfillment capacity, the key to maximum improvement lies in decoupled AMRs.

Decoupled AMRs are a technology and a methodology for fulfillment operations in which orders, human piece pickers, and autonomous transport robots are treated as entirely independent from each other. The robot vehicle isn’t paired to an order. The picker is not paired with (does not accompany) the robot. Instead, in decoupled fulfillment automation, fleet-controlled autonomous robots optimize materials handling by picking up order-totes, transporting them to the next picking location or to the shipping area, and setting them down at the destination without any oversight by workers. This means that the picker is not leading, following or waiting for the robot.

This robot-human collaboration transforms fulfillment operations because the robots are more than automated carts. In decoupled AMR, an order may be held in usually one tote, be piece-picked by several workers, and shuttled from one location to another by a series of robots assigned on an ad hoc basis by the software. Each AMR performs one leg of the order fulfillment transport path, which of course ultimately ends at the shipping area.

Takeaway: All autonomous mobile robotic systems are not created equal. Decoupling is the key.

Decoupling the robot from the worker allows each to go to locations independently when ready. This solves the old “traveling salesman” problem that has long constrained the picking process: while the picker and the robot have to go to the same shelf location they do not have to be there at the exact same time. Removing that constraint means neither robot nor human ever waits for the other. Workers can dedicate themselves to picking only, and remain within a comfortably defined product aisle zone. Robots, on the other hand, spend their time independently placing totes at the ready within picking aisles, receiving optimized “transporting assignments” from the software and moving totes without any human assistance.

This solves the overall picking efficiency problem at the highest level, guaranteeing maximum fulfillment throughput and minimum time-to-ship per order while optimizing labor costs by right-sizing the picking staff.

The result? You can handle your existing workload with fewer pickers in fewer hours. Your existing warehouse space can handle more orders, raising your capacity limit. Your customer service improves dramatically due to fewer picking errors and shorter order response times.

Takeaway: Right-sized staffing, higher capacity, faster time-to-ship, fewer bad picks, much happier customers.

You may be accustomed to seeing robotic solutions for warehouse operations that pair up workers with robotic carts, but that has changed. The latest decoupled AMR technology creates a simultaneous dual workflow using parallel teams of workers and robots. To review, neither worker nor robot is assigned to process an entire order exclusively. Pickers place items from the product shelves into pre-positioned totes, then confirm that the tote is ready to move on. Next, the software dispatches a robot along the optimal path to the shelf, where it grabs the tote and transports it either to the shipping area directly or to another location to receive more items in the order. Any robot can move any tote.

Separating piece picking into discrete actions that can be performed by multiple robots and pickers creates an efficient, fluid process. It vastly reduces worker stress by eliminating lifting and carrying totes through the warehouse aisles. Worker job satisfaction increases, which leads to higher retention rates. And making pickers more productive can combat the labor shortage challenges so chronic in many geographies.

Comparing the use of decoupled AMRs to a manual picking scenario have found a staff of workers can process the same number of order lines faster, with significantly lower physical stress. Now, that’s a revolution!