The field of intralogistics is changing. Faced with increased pressures from labour shortage, needs for cost reduction, and space shortage, warehouses, production sites, and distribution units need to reinvent their processes, and automation will play a key role in addressing these challenges. Progress in the intralogistics space has been slow so far, with approximately 80% of warehouses having little to no automation. Yet, there seems to be an increasing interest towards robotics in the intralogistics space, and according to Gartner, 75% of large enterprises are predicted to adopt robotics solutions for their warehouses by the year 2026,[i] with expected CAGR for the industry to be around 17,5% in the coming years.[ii] Solutions with increasing levels of automation have emerged as a game-changing technology within the field of intralogistics. In the following, we will explore the potential of Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) in transforming warehouse operations, highlighting their ability to enhance efficiency, improve safety, and increase productivity. We delve into the benefits of automation and showcase the abilities and potential of AMRs by featuring a solution developed by Filics.
Current challenges in intralogistics
Intralogistics refers to the management and optimization of material flow and processes within a warehouse, production site, or a distribution center. It focuses on the efficient movement, storage, and handling of goods, ensuring that the right items are in the right place at the right time. Intralogistics plays a crucial role in supporting the overall supply chain and ensuring smooth operations within a specific facility.
The purpose of intralogistics is to enhance operational efficiency, improve productivity, and maximize resource utilization within the warehouse or distribution center. It aims to streamline processes, minimize waste, reduce costs, and meet customer demands for faster and more accurate order fulfilment.
In developing the intralogistics processes, multiple factors should be taken into account:
1. Material Handling: The movement and transportation of goods within the facility, involving tasks such as loading, unloading, sorting, palletizing, and storing.
2. Warehouse Layout and Design: The strategic arrangement of storage areas, workstations, and equipment to optimize space utilization, workflow, and accessibility.
3. Inventory Management: The control and tracking of stock levels, including receiving, storing, and picking goods, as well as inventory accuracy, cycle counting, and replenishment processes.
4. Order Fulfillment: The process of picking, packing, and shipping customer orders, ensuring timely and accurate delivery while minimizing errors and optimizing order consolidation.
5. Technology and Automation: The adoption of technologies such as warehouse management systems (WMS), robotics, other tools for automation, and data analytics to optimize processes, improve efficiency, and enable real-time monitoring and decision-making.
6. Workforce Management: The planning, training, and allocation of human resources within the facility, ensuring that skilled workers are available to perform tasks effectively and efficiently.
7. Safety and Quality Assurance: Ensuring a safe working environment, adhering to safety regulations, and implementing quality control measures to maintain the integrity of goods and prevent accidents or product damage.
8. Process mining and continuous improvement: gathering, analysing, and using data on performance of existing intralogistics solutions and approaches in order to optimize processes and to identify areas of improvement.
By effectively managing these key elements, intralogistics aims to create a seamless flow of materials, minimize bottlenecks, reduce lead times, and enhance overall operational performance within a warehouse or distribution center.
At the moment, the intralogistics sector faces several challenges that require attention and innovative solutions. Labor shortage and skill gaps remain an issue, making it challenging to find and retain skilled workers proficient in new technologies. Integration of emerging technologies, such as automation and data analytics, into existing intralogistics systems presents complexity and compatibility issues. These challenges become prominent particularly when a hybrid solution between automated and manual intralogistics processes is chosen; ensuring that the manual processes have clear and functioning rules for working alongside automated processes adds to complexity, and all new systems implemented have to be able to communicate and work with the existing systems and processes, increasing compatibility challenges. Additionally, the optimization of warehouse space to accommodate inventory growth and changing storage requirements remains a continuous challenge. Achieving scalability and flexibility to adapt to evolving business needs and market demands is crucial. Ensuring end-to-end supply chain visibility, traceability, and effective data management amidst complex supply networks require robust systems and collaboration. Regulatory compliance, data security, and cybersecurity threats add to the challenges, necessitating stringent measures to protect operations and information. Addressing all these challenges will be vital to unlocking the full potential of intralogistics and achieving efficient, agile, and resilient warehouse operations in 2023 and beyond. Automation can be an answer, but its own challenges must be addressed first to ensure that the new solutions contribute to process improvement without adding too high a level of complexity.
For distribution centers, production sites, and warehouses, a few key elements must be addressed in developing new solutions for intralogistics. Firstly, the solution should be suitable for operation within extreme space limitations. Secondly, flexibility in load arrangement and ability to operate in a dynamic environment with changing needs is crucial. Lastly, the solution should be highly optimized in terms of speed, minimizing the time used for intralogistics processing.
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) as the future of intralogistics
Multiple different solutions and approaches that automate intralogistics processes have entered the market in the last few years, with different levels of automation and system vs. human responsibility.[iii] To replace traditional, manual methods of handling intralogistics, solutions such as turtle transport systems and guided forklifts have emerged, providing increased flexibility and automation. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are another new solution on the market. They are autonomously functioning, mobile platforms that can be programmed to move independently along a predefined route, needing little human intervention, and provide a good alternative for intralogistics tasks that are standardized and repetitive. One step further, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are the next generation of technology compared to AGVs.
AMRs are mobile devices that usually navigate using an on-board system based on cameras or laser, and operate without a predefined route, calculating and optimizing independently as they move around the shopfloor. They are used for logistics and delivery and can carry loads such as pallets and boxes. AMRs present one of the most suitable and flexible solutions for transportation within factories, warehouses, and distribution centers, where the transportation units must operate in a dynamic environment and where the layout and needs may change at a short notice.[iv] Their intelligent features such as onboard processing for decentralized decision-making, path planning, and collision avoidance make them particularly promising in addressing the persisting issues of intralogistics.[v] Simultaneously, the advanced sensors for collision avoidance enable smooth human-machine collaboration while ensuring worker safety.
In comparison to other intralogistics solutions on the market, AMRs present a clear step forward in technology, allowing for higher levels of independency, automation, and flexibility, while being able to operate within space constrained facilities. Less developed autonomous solutions, such as AGVs, remain reliant on external navigation mechanisms such as magnetic stripes or wire, are constrained to move within predefined paths, and cannot be quickly adapted to changing needs in a dynamic intralogistics environment. Forklifts and other manual equipment, on the other hand, still largely rely on human operators. They allow for high levels of flexibility in routing, picking up, and handling order, but require room to operate. Due to human-controlled operation, using manual equipment can cause variations in productivity, and the possibility for error and safety hazards persists. These issues are partially eliminated in guided forklifts, which offer a high level of flexibility combined with a higher level of automation and less reliance on human operators, as they are capable of moving independently along predefined routes. These, much like forklifts, still require significant space to operate and are significantly less autonomous than smart mobile robots.
To be usable at scale, AMRs need to address and overcome a host of challenges to ensure smooth operations. Independently of human supervision, the technology needs to be equipped with the ability for continuous decision-making that allows it to make the optimal decision in the current context, taking into account all rules and constraints applying to the environment and tasks at hand.[vi]
Filics – understanding the technology
The Filics Unit is a novel approach to intralogistics AMRs. It is a transport system that consists of two separate skid-shaped robots which virtually connect to execute transport jobs together. Unlike other AMRs in the market, the Filics Unit does not only automate existing transport processes but also enables new ways of how materials can flow within a warehouse, a production site, or a distribution center. Since the Filics Unit entirely fits underneath Euro-standard-sized load carriers, it drastically reduces the space required for transporting those carriers. The compact design of the product also makes it lightweight (approx. 50 kg per robot). This ensures a minimal footprint regarding used materials and energy during both production and operation.
The robots of the Filics Unit have an omnidirectional drive system with four wheels each, enabling speeds of up to 2 m/s (unloaded) and 1.2 m/s (loaded). The Filics Unit has two lifting modules per skid, which all together can lift up to 1,200 kg as high as 60 mm. The robots navigate themselves via state-of-the-art environment mapping called SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping), meaning they can create a complete map of their environment by simply driving through it once. This technology enables a position accuracy of ±1 cm, making more complex infrastructural needs like reflectors, magnet stripes, or visible indicators obsolete. However, due to the naturally low floor clearance, the operation of the Filics Unit mandates a relatively well-maintained and even floor and good Wi-Fi coverage. The Filics Unit aligns with the industry safety standards and will be CE certified. It utilizes the most up-to-date LIDAR technology to recognize obstacles and people in its way. Lastly, the Filics Unit will also be equipped with visible LEDs that will unmistakably create awareness and indicate its direction, enhancing safety and ensuring smooth human-machine collaboration and co-working.
The Filics unit unlocks significant potential within the intralogistics landscape by targeting four main use cases. A-X transport applications are perhaps the most commonly encountered use case, already served by most AGVs and AMRs on the market. As most other solutions also focus on A-X transport applications, the market sector is highly competitive. Yet, with its compact design, the Filics Unit enables a variety of new A-X transports in settings, where extreme space or weight constraints have been the limiting factor for simple A-X transport automation.
Additionally, being the only AMR that can pass through ground-based pallets while offering a genuinely omnidirectional movement, the Filics Unit is able to operate three further use cases that are so far untouched by other AMR solutions. The first one is the handling of ground-based block and line storages. Using its pass-through-ability, the Filics Unit will be able to increase the space utilization by up to 60% while overcoming the restrictions of the last-in-first-out-principal (LIFO). Combining the handling of ground-based block and line storages with A-X transports from or to the storage offers a great solution to increase the level of automation drastically, especially in the warehousing and production sector. Secondly, coordinated Swarm Operations with multiple Filics Units are another untouched use case section by current AMRs. In the context of distribution centers, these Swarm Operations have the potential to significantly increase the operational efficiency by reorganising and sorting goods while they are being transported within the site, instead of having separate sorting processes on designated sorting areas between transports from inbound to outbound (status quo). By using platooning technology these Swarm Operations also can facilitate a throughput in intralogistics that is unmatched by other AMRs or manual executed processes. The last and greatest potential Filics use case is the fully autonomous loading and unloading of truck trailers in one smooth platooned motion by multiple Filics Units. Compared to any other solution for this impactful task, the Filics Unit is the only one to complete it in under 10 minutes, without any manual labour and the need for any inflexible and space demanding additional installations.
Ultimately, the potential for the Filics Unit lies in the high level of flexibility an autonomy combined with the ability to operate in settings, where extreme space constraints have been the limiting factor for automation. Especially in the area of goods distribution, Filics AMRs are capable of overtaking the entire internal good flow and floor storage, ultimately executing the full internal supply chain with one device. The specific features of the Filics Unit unlock multiple new and unique use cases previously not addressed by existing solutions. For the future, the technology is going through fast, continuous development cycles for improving the technology and ensuring that the most pressing challenges of the intralogistics sector are solved.
The intralogistics space is going through an enormous transformation, where increasingly autonomous solutions are being developed to address the current challenges of the industry, such as labor shortage, need for flexibility, and space shortage within warehousing and logistics units. The future of intralogistics is automated, and the Filics Unit shows a great example of the promise of the new technologies, addressing the most pressing challenges of the intralogistics sector and enabling new, unique use cases and processes. Today and in the future, intralogistics processes can be optimized using less and less direct human involvement, reducing human-made errors and enabling continuous process optimization and improvement.
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[i] Gartner (2022), “By 2026, three-fourths of large enterprises will adopt intralogistics smart robots”, https://www.mmh.com/article/gartner_by_2026_three_fourths_of_large_enterprises_will_adopt_intralogistic/Gartner
[ii] Marketsandmarkets (2023), “Autonomous Mobile Robots by Offering… Global Forecast to 2028”, https://www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/autonomous-mobile-robots-market-107280537.html?gclid=CjwKCAjw6eWnBhAKEiwADpnw9ka4Zhk8j38ZKJi0zh68EG6WHrNgPauehEZc6b0h1Ed0g7yfJ7Ri4xoCAhAQAvD_BwE
[iii] Fottner Et al. (2021), “Autonomous Systems in Intralogistics – State of the Art and Future Research Challenges”, Logistics Research, https://mediatum.ub.tum.de/doc/1597483/document.pdf
[iv] Mehami, Nawi, Zhong (2018), “Smart automated guided vehicles for manufacturing in the context of Industry 4.0”, Procedia Manufacturing, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351978918308205
[v] Supra note iv.
[vi] Fragapane Et al. (2021), “Planning and control of autonomous mobile robots for intralogistics: Literature review and research agenda”, European Journal of Operational Research, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/348569276_Planning_and_control_of_autonomous_mobile_robots_for_intralogistics_Literature_review_and_research_agenda