Saturday, December 23, 2017
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It's lights out in the warehouse

Recent advances in technology have renewed the buzz about dark, or "lights-out," warehouses, where machines fill orders without human intervention. But not everybody's ready to flip the switch.

By Ben Ames

Warehouse automation has come a long way in recent years, as distribution centers turn to technology in their effort to meet the demands of fast fulfillment.

Today it's increasingly common to find warehouses deploying sophisticated automated equipment, such as self-guided forklifts, vision-guided robots, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), robotic palletizers, and high-speed conveyors, in their daily operations.

These systems can deliver speed and accuracy in a complex material handling environment, but some businesses say the best is yet to come. Combine all these ingredients together, they say, and the result could be a fully automated facility that operates without any human labor at all.

Also known as a "dark warehouse" or a "lights-out facility," this vision promises swift, error-free fulfillment operations, enabled by key technologies such as automated material handling equipment, warehouse execution systems, and automatic identification (auto ID).

Candidates for this sort of fully automated operation include cold storage or freezer warehouses, such as those used in the food and beverage or pharmaceutical sectors. There are a couple of reasons for that. For one thing, replacing humans with machines eliminates the need for people to work in adverse conditions like sub-zero temperatures.

For another, automation helps reduce the amount of traffic in and out of the refrigerated chamber, thereby enhancing climate control, said Matt Engle, director of ID products marketing and logistics at Cognex Corp., a company that specializes in machine vision technology and industrial bar-code readers. Excluding workers from the refrigerated room helps prevent humidity from entering the chamber when people enter and exit the area for shift changes and coffee breaks, Engle said. Too much humidity can create frost buildup on goods and equipment, damaging materials and requiring extra maintenance, he explained.

Engle adds that the lights-out approach is best suited to "low-variability" operations that process the same sized items all the time. That's because highly tailored material handling systems can be thrown off when confronted by items of a wide variety of dimensions. Processing diverse goods can lead to high failure rates on tasks like aligning parcels on a conveyor or distinguishing between similar stock-keeping units (SKUs).

"A lights-out facility is more possible in less-variable parts of logistics, where people are moving a large portion of the same types of objects," Engle said. Examples of these dark warehouse operations would be a facility that distributes standard-sized packages of processed foods or a soda bottling plant that processes identical 12-packs of cans.

Contact Information

Bob Cudnik
Logistics Engineering, LLC
517 Patterdale Lane
Blythewood, South Carolina 29016

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