Robotics in Automated Manufacturing and Warehouse Automation

Discover how robots enable process automation in warehouses and manufacturing facilities across the globe.

 

Key Takeaways

  • Robotics technologies play a key role in enabling warehouse automation and automated manufacturing.

  • Artificial intelligence and machine vision technologies allow robots to see, analyze, and understand industrial environments.

  • AI-enabled robots perform tasks to increase quality, efficiency, and safety with little-to-no human supervision needed.

  • Autonomous mobile robots and industrial robotic arms help automate pick and place and material handling processes.

  • IT/OT convergence enables companies to deploy intelligent edge solutions that help reduce downtime and automate processes.

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Transforming Manufacturing and Warehousing with Robotics

For industrial manufacturers and warehousing businesses, gaining an edge on their always-evolving competitive landscape is becoming increasingly more difficult. 

Consumer spending is on the rise, creating higher demand on staff already spread thin. The United States saw Q2 2021 personal consumption expenditures increase 11.9 percent on top of an 11.4 percent increase the previous quarter.1 And at the same time, the industrial sector is facing a large labor gap. According to a May 2021 report by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, 77 percent of more than 800 US manufacturers surveyed anticipate having trouble recruiting and retaining employees in 2021 and beyond.2

Combine these two factors with rapidly changing technology and competitors that are constantly innovating, and you have a perfect storm for industrial businesses. 

Many companies are now turning to industrial automation and robotics not only as a solution to these challenges but as a way to get ahead and stay ahead in their market. But what is automation, how does it help solve today’s challenges, and where do robots fit in?

What Is Warehouse Automation?

Warehouse automation is the process of using technology, such as robots, to make processes more efficient with minimal assistance from human workers.

Until recently, warehouse automation was completed with automated guided vehicles (AGVs), which rely on predefined paths and human operators to complete tasks such as materials delivery. The exponential growth of e-commerce and increasing demand for flexible technology have exposed the limitations of AGVs.

Today, warehouse automation can be performed by autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) that navigate warehouses independently and assist human workers. Industrial robotic arms are also a common automation technology that’s used for picking, placing, and sorting objects. Both of these technologies are critical to order fulfillment in e-commerce.

Both AMRs and robotic arms can be augmented with vision sensors (such as 2D/3D cameras) and empowered with artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to deliver enhanced operations and support innovative processes. Vision- and AI-enabled robots can “see”, which enables them to detect, classify, sort, pick and package objects. They often operate with better accuracy and consistency than human operators, making them less prone to errors or accidents.

What Is Automated Manufacturing?

Just as robots are critical to enabling warehouse automation, they are also essential for bringing automation to factories.

Automated manufacturing uses technology to make production processes more efficient. This results in higher outputs at lower costs for manufacturers.

While robots have been used in manufacturing for decades, the recent introduction of AI is revolutionizing how business gets done. AI enables robots to perform their tasks better and take on additional ones. For example, robots can now inspect parts as they build them to detect issues in real-time and improve overall product or process quality and yield. AI-powered robotic arms improve safety in some industrial sectors by completing complex tasks in dangerous environments where human workers would risk injuries or serious harm. AI also makes it easier to retrain and reteach robots when repurposing them for different tasks. This can lower the cost of operations and keep human workers focused on more complex, higher value assignments. 

Because robots are versatile, they can be used throughout the manufacturing facility or assembly line for tasks such as welding, painting, cutting, and in-line inspection. Additionally, they often work alongside humans to protect them from mundane, stressful, or harmful aspects of the manufacturing process, including lifting, moving, or holding heavy items.

How to Achieve Warehouse Automation and Automated Manufacturing

Before industrial businesses can reap the full benefits of robotic-enabled automation on the factory floor or in the warehouse, they need the ability to capture, aggregate, and analyze data and information from multiple sensors, applications, and processes closer to the source.

This can be achieved through IT/OT convergence, which is the integration of information technology (IT), the hardware and software that process data, with operational technology (OT), the systems that control industrial operations. This consolidation creates a responsive, interconnected platform that enables businesses to adjust operational systems in near-real time—which helps reduce downtime, automate processes, and inform new, innovative solutions.

With these new converged systems, businesses can integrate innovative, intelligent industrial edge solutions and capabilities that can further reduce costs and increase profits. This includes: AMRs powered by artificial intelligence (AI) that help automate manufacturing and logistics to boost efficiency; industrial robotic arms equipped with machine vision to check for product defects, read bar codes, and confirm correct label position on products; or collaborative robots (cobots) with integrated sensors to safely help human workers with material handling.

Benefits of Robotics in Warehouses and Manufacturing

Once companies achieve IT/OT convergence, companies can effectively use robotics to automate processes and realize several other benefits:

 

  • Higher efficiency and productivity. Robots can perform a variety of tasks, including those that are complex, niche, and highly repetitive and variable, without the need to rest or take breaks. This allows production, safety inspections, or other tasks to be performed in perpetuity to increase output.
  • Improved product quality. For tasks that require extreme precision, businesses can benefit from the innate precision, consistency, and accuracy offered by robotic arms. Robots equipped with cameras and empowered by AI help improve product quality by performing real-time inspections on assembly lines and reducing the need for rework.
  • Improved worker safety and workplace ergonomics. Tasks that require access to hazardous environments, demand highly repetitive and strenuous movements, or involve handling dangerous chemicals or substances can drastically increase the risk of human workers getting injured. By using robots in such scenarios, businesses can keep workers out of harm’s way and prevent possible injuries.
  • Increased cost savings. Through improved efficiency and quality control, reduced waste, and less downtime, the use of robots for automation can translate into cost savings for businesses.
  • Reduced waste. When programmed properly, robots can complete delicate tasks within extremely tight tolerance limits. The lack of variation in product manufacturing can help eliminate defects, scrap parts, the need for rework, and—ultimately—waste.
  • Faster cycle times. One of the most common reasons manufacturers integrate robots into operations is to reduce manufacturing cycle times. They turn to robots because of their ability to operate at speeds faster than human workers, reliability to complete tasks without breaks, and operational precision—all of which can help optimize cycle times.

Robotic Warehouse and Manufacturing Automation Technology

The robots most commonly used in warehouse and manufacturing automation include:

Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)

An autonomous mobile robot is a type of robot that uses artificial intelligence, a sophisticated set of sensors, and compute technologies to interpret its environment and move through it independently. Cameras and sensors enable AMRs to detect and avoid obstacles through AI inferencing while they’re on the move completing tasks.

Industrial Robotic Arms

Industrial robotic arms are fast, reliable, and accurate. They are used in factories to automate repetitive tasks such as painting, welding, or grinding of parts. In warehouses, robots are used for the picking and sorting of goods from distribution conveyors to fulfill consumer orders. A key benefit of robotic arms is their versatility in both application and environment. Because they can be programmed to complete a broad range of tasks in many different environments, they are the most common type of robots used in industrial automation.

Cobots

Cobots (also known as collaborative robots) are robots that are equipped with integrated safety functions so they can safely share spaces with human workers to help them accomplish more. According to the Association for Advancing Automation,the four types of cobots are: power and force limiting, safety-monitored stop, speed and separation, and hand guiding.

Industrial Automation Applications

A key benefit of incorporating robotics into warehouses and manufacturing is operational flexibility and versatility. Here are some of the ways that robots are used today:

Pick and Place

Pick-and-place robots are typically used in modern manufacturing and logistics. They are equipped with advanced machine vision systems that give them the ability to identify, grasp, and move objects—quickly and efficiently—to increase production speed.

Palletizing

With the use of a robot palletizer, the process of placing goods or products onto pallets becomes more accurate, cost-effective, and predictable. It also frees human workers from performing tasks that present a risk of injury.

Material Handling

Material-handling robots can help create a safe and efficient warehouse by ensuring goods and materials are properly stored, easy to find, and transported correctly. Automating these processes can help accelerate the delivery of goods to customers, prevent workplace accidents, and improve the efficiency of a facility.

To counter labor shortages while maintaining production demands, Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd, in collaboration with Tier IV and eve autonomy, introduced autonomous electric vehicles to its manufacturing sites to move products within and between buildings. Using 3D vision sensors, Tier IV’s Autoware OS, and Intel® Xeon® processors for high-performance compute, these AI-powered, unmanned vehicles operate indoors and outdoors, navigate narrow pathways, steps, and slopes, and automatically adjust to their surroundings, avoiding obstacles and people when en route.

Intel® Technologies

By leveraging Intel® technologies, end-to-end solutions, and global partner ecosystem, organizations can develop, deploy, and integrate robots into their workflows more easily, accelerating the time to positive business benefits and groundbreaking innovation.

Intel® processors for IoT and embedded uses provide the powerful compute capabilities and integrated functions needed to enable data processing at the edge and delivery of critical insights in near-real time. Intel® RealSense™ products give robots the ability to perceive their surroundings and understand objects. A robust range of stereo depth and tracking cameras enable depth mapping and simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM), which are essential in ensuring AMRs and robotic arms can perform in multiple environments and varying conditions.

With the Intel® Distribution of OpenVINO™ toolkit, developers can convert and optimize models to achieve high performance for deep-learning inference applications. The toolkit also facilitates a smoother development process and enables a write-once, deploy-anywhere model.

Our Edge Insights for Autonomous Mobile Robots software development kit allows developers to easily develop, build, and deploy end-to-end AMR applications.

For manufacturers looking to take their operations to the next level, Intel® Edge Controls for Industrial allows them to transition their industrial control systems to a software-defined architecture. This leads to easier management and faster adoption of new, best-in-breed solutions.

Intel-powered machine vision solutions for Industry 4.0 bring together hardware and software to power the machine vision, smart manufacturing, and industrial control systems critical to robotics solutions, intelligent process automation, predictive maintenance, automated vision inspection for defect detection, and more.

Intel’s Integral Role in Robotics in Warehouse and Manufacturing Automation

Warehousing and manufacturing businesses that operate in an environment of continuous change seek out innovative ways to not only survive new challenges but come out ahead. Robot-enabled automation can increase productivity, enhance worker safety, and improve product quality. With end-to-end solutions, unmatched expertise, and a global partner ecosystem, Intel empowers businesses of all sizes as they embark on their robotic automation journey.
 

FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions

An automated manufacturing system is a system that uses technology, such as robotics solutions, to make production processes more efficient.

A variety of processes in warehouses can be automated, including simple tasks, such as moving inventory, and more difficult tasks, such as forklift navigation, throughout the facility. Examples of other processes that can be automated include package picking, sorting, packaging, shipping, and returns.

Warehouse automation is important because it enables businesses of all sizes to compete in a crowded and competitive industry. It allows organizations to increase efficiency, lower costs, improve worker safety and satisfaction, enhance customer service, and boost customer satisfaction.

Product and Performance Information

1

Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), National Income and Product Accounts. August 26, 2021. https://apps.bea.gov/iTable/iTable.cfm?reqid=19&step=3&isuri=1&nipa_table_list=1&categories=survey.

2

Deloitte, “US Manufacturing Skills Gap Could Leave as Many as 2.1 Million Jobs Unfilled By 2030, Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute Study Finds.” https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/press-releases/deloitte-manufacturing-skills-gap.html.