The robots are coming?

By Ruari McCallion

March 2022

Warehouse automation: how far and how fast?

Is materials handling undertaking a great leap forward in automation or is the picture of ‘lights-out warehouses’ more a product of imagination than a reflection of reality? Ruari McCallion talks to users and suppliers about the current state of affairs and the likely shape of warehouse automation in the immediate future.

The days when robots were capable only of repeating the same task, over and over again, are retreating into the past. The new generation includes cobots (collaborative robots, capable of working alongside human beings, without the need for protective cages); equipment that can be quickly repurposed from one task to something different; and integrated cells that use original-style ‘dumb’ robots (very good at repetitive tasks) to perform different functions, such as depalletising and loading.

However, for many warehouses, the latest piece of tech isn’t really on their investment horizon; the immediate need is for simpler automation for relatively straightforward tasks, like palletising and depalletising.

The need for automation: labour and costs

Necessity tends to dictate the level of urgency that users feel about their systems. In particular, labour rates and wages will influence the attractiveness of automated solutions.

“The use of old-fashioned tech is dominant in the majority of warehouses; labour rates are low in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).” This is the view of Raed Hunaidi, Product Manager Material Handling at Machinery Alternative Solutions, the Kingdom’s local Cat® lift truck dealership, which is part of the Zahid Group of Companies, headquartered in Jeddah, KSA. Manual labour and conventional handling machines are the norm.

Among the hurdles to adopting the latest systems are the low cost of labour, high capital costs and insufficient knowledge for such large and complex undertakings. The fear is reasonable: going from a manual system to full automation is like trying to board an express train thundering by at 100 mph.

It’s a question of walk, then trot, then canter, then run – the right pace for the right situation.

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Raed Hunaidi, Product Manager Material Handling at Machinery Alternative Solutions.

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Michael Payne, UK Food and Beverage Sector Manager, Business Segment Robotics, with KUKA Robotics UK Ltd.

Labour shortages and e-commerce

Drivers of automation include shortage of labour; transient or seasonal in particular. The Covid pandemic has added to the problem through the changes it has driven in consumer behaviour. In-person high street retail purchasing has been significantly affected by lockdowns and restrictions on travel, with a corresponding increase in e-commerce and online sales.

Across Europe, online shopping rose to over 16% of the total in 2020, according to Statista. It was forecast to fall back to 15.3% in 2021. European online shopping is led by Germany with just under 20% market share in 2020, forecast to be 18.7% in 2021. (UK numbers are 26% and 24.3%, respectively, while French numbers are 14.3% and 13.8%). Nearly 70% of consumers up to age 55 bought online in 2020; the proportion of over-55s who did so has risen from 50% in 2015 to 57% in 2020, with the pace of uptake accelerating.

Even with larger companies, the initial investigation is usually about fairly basic equipment.

“A lot of companies, especially larger companies, are opting to go for roboticised palletisation. It’s the fastest-growing market within food and beverage (F&B) at the moment,” says Michael Payne, UK Food and Beverage Sector Manager, Business Segment Robotics, with KUKA Robotics UK Ltd. “It’s rare that we get an enquiry that already has the robots and all the palletisers, so we start by talking about palletisers and then ancillary equipment to attach to it, then we may move on to talk about AGVs (automated guided vehicles),” he continues. “As for cobots (collaborative robots), people have seen them, they think they’re easier to programme, they don’t need guarding, and so on. I have to say, though, that we usually end up with solutions that are non-collaborative. Cobots are great as a door-opener but true collaborative solutions, where a robot and a person are physically handing pieces to each other and building the same thing, are very rare.”

Raed Hunaidi sees a similar situation in KSA, with larger, non-Saudi companies exploring more advanced automation options, such as cobots, with the large domestic market still considering.

“We have noticed that international logistics companies are testing these concepts,” he says. “I believe that the future is for more advanced robotics and automation, but investing in simple automation is the first step.” He makes the point that the Zahid Group itself continually invests in technologies intended to enhance customers’ warehouse operations.

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Neil Mead, Area Sales Manager with KUKA Robotics UK Ltd


Automated technologies provided by the Zahid Group in support of warehouse operations include training simulators. These can be used for lift trucks as well as larger equipment. Photo: Zahid Group

ROI, job security and worker safety

Neil Mead, Area Sales Manager with KUKA Robotics UK Ltd, agrees with his colleague.

“There is a lot of low-hanging fruit waiting to be picked; a lot of space for basic automation. There is a big gap between the Amazon and Ocado set-up at one extreme and manual operations at the other,” he says. “The main hurdles are, traditionally: expense; return on investment (ROI); and fear of job losses.”

Financial and employment concerns can be pretty easily addressed.

“There are many different ways to finance capital investment and it is quite easy to demonstrate ROI,” says Neil Mead. In a situation where labour shortage is driving automation, fear of job losses should be a lesser concern. Automation can help immensely with worker safety, quality and wastage, also, which is good for customer satisfaction and, consequently, job security.

Thatcher’s Cider

Thatcher’s Cider, which makes and distributes cider in south-west England, automated its keg palletising and depalletising cell to improve efficiency, reduce damage to kegs and improve safety. The original keg unloading arrangement required forklift drivers to split down three-layer pallets and then place kegs accurately onto the conveyor line, fast enough to keep up with a 450 keg/hour line speed.

SCM Handling built an automated cell around two robots, which easily kept up with the line speeds, improved health and safety, and had a higher repeatability: a KUKA KR 120, which picks up the layer boards that sit between each six-pack layer of kegs, and a 700 kg payload KR 700 PA, which picks up and stacks the kegs. The KR 700 has a high reach of 3320 mm, to enable it to serve existing conveyor heights.


KUKA palletising/depalletising cell. Photo: Thatcher’s Cider

Empty stacks of 18 kegs are moved from lorries to the loading end of the cell. A centralising unit squares them up before the KUKA KR 120 removes the layer board, allowing the KR 700 to lift six kegs at a time and place them onto the conveyor, for inspection and cleaning prior to refilling.

Filled kegs arrive on the opposite side of the cell. The KR 700 swings through 180 degrees from the incoming to the outbound side and stacks the kegs in three layers of sixes, whether 30 or 50 litres, and the KR 120 locates the layer boards. Sensors and programming ensure that each layer and layer board is precisely positioned, eliminating the risk of toppling in manual handling.

Automating wine packaging

Integrator CKF recently designed, installed and commissioned an extensive new case feed and palletising system for an established e-commerce and retail wine business. The new system enabled the company to handle a 50% increase in demand during 2020 and improve productivity from 65% to 98%. CKF installed fully automated layer palletising with a multi-lane accumulation feed system, mounted on a new mezzanine floor.


Automated wine case feeding and palletising. Photo: CKF Systems