Collaborative robots focus on the most repetitive tasks that take place in the warehouse

Cobots: at your service in the warehouse

06 April 2021

Cobots (collaborative robots) already play a part in scores of logistics processes taking place in warehouses. From goods transportation to order prep, this technology has made it possible to boost supply chain efficiency.

In fact, many sectors have implemented cobots, among them, the automotive and retail industries. So, why is this? A study by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) finds that, by 2022, e-commerce will record a turnover of over $6 billion. It also indicates that employees’ non-productive time is reduced by 85% when they work together with robots.

In this post, we define cobots, their contribution to the supply chain, and their future in the warehouse.

What are cobots? What’s their role in the warehouse?

Cobots, or collaborative robots, are machines created to interact with humans in a work environment in order to free workers from having to perform more repetitive, complex, or hazardous tasks.

This innovation can be applied to warehouses thanks to two key technologies: AI and machine learning. In this sense, cobots don’t replace operators — they learn from them to perform functions of the utmost accuracy without the slightest wear and tear.

What does the arrival of cobots mean for logistics? Machines will take care of the most repetitive processes, helping humans to focus exclusively on tasks that add value to logistics: data analysis and strategic decisions, among others.

In large warehouses and distribution centers, cobots increase efficiency in picking, traveling around the installation so that pickers can remain in their work area.

Advantages of cobots in the warehouse

When it comes to automating logistics, cobots have a number of advantages, namely:

  • Greater precision: the incorporation of these machines in logistics processes minimizes errors stemming from manual management.
  • Improved safety: cobots are charged with fulfilling the more hazardous tasks, diminishing the risk of accidents for both the operator and the goods.
  • Increased productivity: collaborative robots run nonstop, helping operators with more repetitive tasks and those requiring more physical strength, thus maximizing throughput.
  • Lower operating costs: the enhanced efficiency in warehouse operations and drop in errors optimizes company resources.
  • Flexibility and scalability for the installation: cobots can be implemented in multiple logistics tasks, allowing workflows in the facility to be adapted to orders and to product seasonality.

All these plus points have led to the growth of this technology in storage installations. In fact, according to forecasts from consulting company Loup Ventures, by 2025, the cobot market will have a turnover of more than $6.8 billion.

Examples of cobots in the warehouse:

Nowadays, the main cobot applications have to do with repetitive logistics activities that are very physically demanding for operators. Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • Picking: in both order prep and pick-and-place processes, cobots constitute a major improvement, as they’re more agile and effective than traditional operators.
  • Packaging and assembly: tasks such as packaging goods or placing them on pallets tend to be rather slow. For that reason, cobots are incorporated to optimize these manual operations.
  • Quality control: the technical inspection carried out during the goods receipt process is a complex task. It requires the identification of multiple parameters, such as the condition of the pallet, verification of quantities, etc. Integrating a cobot with a camera increases efficiency in this phase, in turn, reducing the company’s overall logistics costs.

Warehouse cobot regulation: ISO 15066

To consolidate a logistics solution, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) launched the ISO/TS 15066:2016 standard.

This standard regulates safety requirements in industrial environments for effective cooperation between operators and collaborative robots. This aims to prevent risks to operators as they carry out their work.

This international directive also establishes the guidelines and criteria for the appropriate design and implementation of a warehouse and of its workflows in order to ensure the integrity of the workers. For example, ISO/TS 15066:2016 indicates the need for a minimum safe distance between the cobots and operators.

Cobots vs. industrial robots

The ISO defined the concept of industrial automation under the umbrella of the ISO 8373:2012 standard: an industrial robot is “an automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator programmable in three or more axes, which can be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications.”

The main difference between a cobot and a conventional industrial robot is its role in the warehouse: while collaborative machines — as their name suggests — work to help operators, boosting the efficiency of their tasks, industrial robots are designed to retake the place of humans.

So, what are the differences between cobots and industrial robots?

CobotsIndustrial robots
Carry out multiple tasksExecute a single task with maximum precision
Improve their skills through machine learningDo not respond to unforeseen events (they’re preprogrammed)
Are lightweightAre heavy and have limited movement
Interact with humansDo not collaborate with operators

The future of warehouse automation: more robots and more specialists

The future, therefore, lies in the collaboration between humans and robots in the warehouse. This is reflected in a recent study by consulting company Forrester, which suggests that automation will eliminate 16% of current jobs, while it will create 9% of new jobs by 2025.

Why is this? AI will replace mechanical work and introduce new job profiles that add value, for instance, automotive specialists, robotics programmers, and content creators.

The Forrester report isn’t the only one pointing towards a rise in the symbiosis between operators and machines: according to a study from Interact Analysis, the cobot market will exceed $5 billion in 2027.

Together with the implementation of warehouse management systems, cobots will raise efficiency and productivity in logistics installations. In short, its aim is not to eliminate jobs, but to complement operators in performing their tasks to guarantee quality standards in their work.