Cobot automation in warehouses


By Steven Archer, Digital Marketing Manager at Mills CNC.

Modern-day one-click shopping has left warehouse, distribution and fulfilment centres feeling the need for more streamlined logistics. To accommodate demand and become more efficient, many e-commerce businesses are turning to smart automation systems.

Leading the way are collaborative robots, otherwise known as cobots. Collaborative robots are designed to work alongside human workers. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was estimated that cobots will comprise 34% of total robot sales by 2025.

They are being used globally in a number of different ways, and are becoming increasingly common in the manufacturing and logistics industries for taking on the repetitive, laborious and often dangerous tasks that humans are perhaps not best placed to do.

Cobots in warehouses

Traditionally, the job of warehouse picking was always carried out by human workers. In a large-scale warehouse, however, walking long distances through the working week picking items could really take a toll on workers' bodies and their schedule, spending more time travelling through the warehouse than actually doing activities that create revenue.

In 2012, e-commerce giant Amazon spent $775 million on a new breed of mobile robots that could tackle this issue. These cobots are designed to carry shelves of products from worker to worker, meaning that human workers can spend more time on more productive tasks.

Today, Amazon has more than 200,000 mobile robots working inside its warehouse network, alongside hundreds of thousands of human workers. This large step into automation has meant that Amazon can fulfil its ever-increasing promises of speedy deliveries to Amazon Prime customers.

The efficiency of Amazon’s services, however, has defined the expectations for the modern customer. This has had a knock-on effect on the rest of the retail warehouse industry. In a bid to keep up with Amazon’s speedy service and highly-efficient warehousing systems, many smaller businesses are also delving into the world of cobots and exploring how this type of automation can take their offering to the next level.

Cobots and small businesses

A lot of automation comes with a large price tag. Industrial robots, for instance, require a fair bit of investment which puts them out of reach for many companies. Cobots, however, cost significantly less to purchase and also less to maintain so open up a world of possibility for smaller-scale operations. Their lightweight but rigid construction and torque-sensing capabilities mean that they are easy to deploy and very safe to use.

This makes cobots game-changers for small and medium-sized e-commerce businesses that want to keep up with customer expectations but that can’t afford complex automation systems, or perhaps don’t quite have the need for them yet. The beauty of cobots is that they don’t need to be complicated in order to effectively operate in a warehouse. They can be as simple as autonomous pallet jacks that follow a worker around the warehouse, or wearable robotics that help employees with overhead work.

This type of automation will not only increase efficiency but also increase worker safety. Ankle twists and sprains, lower back injuries and upper body fatigue are all common in warehouse workers, and can all be nearly eliminated with the use of cobots.

Will cobots take over the human workforce?

For as long as the automation industry has been evolving, people have been asking, ‘will robots steal our jobs?’ This is a natural reaction and, all through history, new technological innovations and inventions have been received in a similar way: some with justification, others not.

In regards to cobots, the clue is in the name. They are specially designed to collaborate with human workers, operating alongside them in the same area without overpowering or rendering them redundant. Cobots require human intervention with set-ups and programming in order to do their job. They provide the opportunity for companies of all kinds to upskill their workforces and focus time and resources on enabling them to undertake more skilled and value-adding activities.

There are some requirements that a cobot just cannot deliver; for instance picking up large, bulky or oddly shaped items or giving specialised finishing touches to shipments, such as wrapping items in tissue paper and tying them up with a bow.

In the next decade, the cobot sector is set to boom. As the cost of materials drop and technology leaps ahead, cobots will become even more affordable and provide opportunities for even more businesses. Today’s logistics landscape is fast-paced and e-commerce businesses must be agile. Warehouse cobots can help them keep up with the expectations and standards that giants such as Amazon are setting.

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