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Supply Chain

Out of the cage

A new generation of robots is revolutionizing warehouse management. Software from the Körber Business Area Supply Chain is creating the key link between people and these machines.

There wasn’t much time. The US company Verst Logistics had only a few months before work with a new client was scheduled to begin. The client was an online merchant selling arts and crafts materials and writing supplies. In all, there were 1,100 items for customers to choose from, and the client was promising to deliver any order within 48 hours at most. “That was a huge challenge for us,” says Dean Hoerlein, Vice President at Verst Logistics. It was clear that the processes at the Verst warehouse in Kentucky had to be much faster than they were. Verst Logistics turned to a new type of robots called autonomous mobile robots, or AMR for short.

less misdirected mail

go back to the mobile robots. Because of the precise information and images on their screens, warehouse employees made fewer mistakes when packing.

Robots that navigate with 3D cameras and sensors

The big innovation of AMRs lies in the ‘A’ part: ‘autonomous.’ In contrast to most robots used in warehouses in the past, they don’t require any permanently installed rails or magnetic tracks. Instead, they navigate through buildings using digital maps, 3D cameras, and advanced sensors. They move out of the way of people and other robots without interrupting their trip. The job of retrieving products from, or placing them in, bays is often still done by people, the pickers. “The robots save them the effort of unnecessarily going back and forth in the aisles,” explains John Santagate, Vice President Robotics in the Business Unit Software at Körber Supply Chain. “That can make up more than half of the working time — which is time they can put to better use some other way.” This makes logistics processes much more efficient.

AMRs also fundamentally change the relationship between people and machines. “Robots and employees now work hand in hand,” says Dirk Teschner. His responsibilities in the Körber Business Area Supply Chain include introducing AMRs on the European market. “Until now, people and robots have performed different jobs in warehouses,” says Teschner. In extreme cases, robots have been permanently installed in one place, behind bars or other safety barriers. “Now,” says Teschner, “they're leaving these cages.” That raises warehouse management to a new level. Warehouse operators can deploy the robots more flexibly and give them much more complex tasks.

A Verst Logistics warehouse employee places goods in the baskets of the mobile robots, which then take over further transport independently. In this way he saves time that he previously needed for walking back and forth within the warehouse.
Man and machine work hand in hand: On display panels, employees can read off which goods the robot is to transport.

lWe have experience in logistics by our customers that the robotics vendors don’t have.r

Dirk Teschner, Member of the Management Board at Körber Supply Chain Software

Körber integrates the robots for every client

The key link between the robots and the people is created by Körber. The robots come from partners such as Fetch, Locus, or Geek+ and the intelligent integration comes from Körber — tailored to the specific customer needs. Knowing exactly what these customers need is precisely the strength of the Business Area Supply Chain: “We have experience in logistics by our customers that the robotics vendors don’t have,” says Teschner. One reason for this is that the experts in the Business Area have been working successfully for years on mobile radio units used in warehouses for order picking. The manufacturers supply the hardware and the operating system, and the Körber specialists advise the customers, build the appropriate IT infrastructure and customize the required software solutions. It is very similar to the situations when robots are used.

How the AMR software must be customized depends on many factors: the layout of the warehouse, the width of the aisles, and the height of the bays, for example. It also depends on the rhythm in which the goods are moved: “Some customers have a continuous flow of goods; others have seasonal phases with large increases in activity,” says Santagate. Körber experts configure the systems precisely to match the different requirements.

For the Verst warehouse in Kentucky, a “swarm solution” was developed: When the robots receive jobs from the Warehouse Management System (WMS), they can compare them with the pickers’ current locations — and then swarm out. “The robots are truly intelligent,” says Santagate. One major benefit for customers is that no elaborate and expensive reorganization of the warehouse is needed; the robots can be deployed into the existing operation and processes. There are currently almost 30 AMRs moving through the warehouses of Verst — and the company was able to keep its promise. “We wouldn’t have managed it without the robot solution from Körber,” says Hoerlein.

less walking

for employees, thanks to the introduction of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) in the warehouse.

Körber is an AMR pioneer

In the United States, there are approximately 4,500 existing Körber WMS customers for solutions like this, Santagate estimates. About 2,500 of them operate warehouses, some of them with up to a hundred or more sites. In a recent study, 70 percent of Körber WMS customers said they have plans to introduce AMRs in the coming years. “The technology is now ready for the mainstream,” says Santagate. As a result, the future of robotics is becoming an integral part of the extensive services offered by the Körber Business Area Supply Chain. It is an enormous growth market, and Teschner sees plenty of potential for Europe too. The same is true for the Asia-Pacific region. Körber has been present there since 2019, when it acquired the Australian company Cohesio Group, which is considered a pioneer in the region in the area of AMRs. 

lThey can all hit the ground running, because the robots are just connected to the system.r

John Santagate, Vice President Robotics at Körber Supply Chain Software.

Moreover, Körber offers not only this innovative technology but also supports a new type of business model: robots as a service. Logistics companies like to keep their budgets for warehouses small — and they can also lease robotics through Körber. For example, they could sign a three-year contract that includes maintenance work and regular software updates. Short-term leasing is also possible. “For customers with seasonal bursts of activity, that’s a big advantage,” says Teschner. Until now, warehouse operators have compensated for these peaks with workers from temp agencies. “These workers have to be trained time and again.” But if warehouse operators instead combine their well-practiced core workforce with robot helpers for these seasonal peaks, “they can all hit the ground running, because the robots are just connected to the system,” says Santagate.

Initial test runs will start soon with two German customers. “The first warehouses to use AMRs could start up in the coming year,” says Teschner. Since Körber can point to the Verst project in the USA as proof that AMRs work in practice, the new customers were won over right away.

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