Next Day Delivery: How Autonomous Vehicles Impact Our Warehouses

autonomous vehicles used in distribution centers and warehouses to help drive e-commerce us commerce

Autonomous Vehicles Move Beyond Cars

When we think about self-driving vehicles, the first thing we usually think about is commercial vehicles.

While autonomous vehicle technology is advancing quickly in the retail sector, it is making, even more, progress in the logistic industry in warehouses.

Warehouses are seeing the highest adoption rates for autonomous vehicles because of the increased pressure that Commerce is putting on shipping and storage facilities. Distribution centers need to provide very efficient delivery service with almost perfect accuracy.

In particular, e-commerce is establishing the need for warehouses to store more items, and process orders quicker than ever before and stores are turning to autonomous vehicles to help optimize their logistic systems.

The Evolution Of Distribution Center Efficiency

Distribution centers and warehouses play a crucial role in the flow and delivery of products from manufacturers to end users.

As giant routing centers, they receive large pallets of a variety of products from different manufacturers and then break those pallets down and deliver individual units to outgoing shipments.

There is a complicated process to within the warehouse to keep the flow of products and reduce costs while improving accuracy.

Many modern warehouses integrate advanced IoT technology into their interior safety equipment. The technology is able to communicate with loading equipment, while humans are notified of potential dangers by the visual cues from the cones. This is a great combination of technology for human forklift drivers and for self-driving technology used in the environment. 

The use of autonomous vehicles in distribution centers is just the next iteration of technological solutions for warehouse locations. New automation systems have helped increase efficiency and economic variables of distribution centers, including:

  • Carousels
  • High-speed sorters
  • Digital scanning systems
  • Technology to optimize batch work orders

These technological advancements have helped distribution centers streamline the entire process to fulfill individual orders. These improvements have been necessary because of the ongoing popularity of online shopping and e-commerce stores.

Autonomous Vehicles To Keep Up With E-Commerce

In past years consumers have turned to online shopping for their retail needs. In fact, the U.S. saw a 14.6% growth in online commerce alone. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, online sales accounted for more than a third of all retail sales growth in 2015.

While the growth of e-commerce is no surprise, the sheer volume of orders processed is putting unexpected strains on warehouses and other logistic centers across the nation.

As American consumers continue to use services like Amazon and other online retailers, the demand for quicker delivery and order fulfillment will require more intelligent autonomous vehicles to help meet customer expectations.

Growing Pressure For Optimization & Speed

Warehouses need to always adjust their logistic systems to respond to current customer demand to keep up with the growing volume of work. In addition to safety and production concerns, warehouses must also consider complicated variables like:

  1. The size and variety of products shipped from the warehouse storage.
  2. Short-term seasonality of products and market trends.
  3. Regional requirements to provide flexible order fulfillment for a wider range of customers.
  4. Increase productivity while reducing less energy and resources.
  5. Maintain industry standards with environmental regulations.

The global economy is mounting pressure on delivery companies to focus on speed and personalization like never before. Many manufacturers, warehouse operators, and fulfillment centers are facing the challenge to provide their customers with solutions that are individualized and economical.

To address the mounting pressure for speed, accuracy, and efficiency, these suppliers are turning to autonomous vehicles to work with human labor.

Benefits Of Autonomous Vehicles For Warehouse Use

Autonomous vehicles can be used in logistic systems provide substantial benefits to warehouses. Since autonomous vehicles don’t sleep or suffer from fatigue, they can work around the clock and stop only for regular maintenance.

Along with the ability to increase the time of production, autonomous vehicles can also communicate with each other in real-time. This constant exchange of information between vehicles means there are fewer collisions, thus improving the overall performance of the system.

As transponder technology improves, the building is also able to communicate with autonomous collection vehicles. This type of data communication can help optimize paths and direct vehicles to the proper locations to fulfill orders as quickly as possible.

New algorithms are being used to improve organization and vehicle delivery times with different aspects, including:

  • Vehicles work with high levels of autonomy because of dynamic path planning.
  • Avoid collision because they can modify their path in real time.
  • Redefine optimal path modification to avoid costly investments.

When autonomous vehicles are used along with human workers, supply centers are seeing improved efficiency and economic value for order fulfillment.

More goods are able to be handled in less time, resulting in higher profits and better customer service all around.

Amazon Amasses A Team Of Robots

Amazon.com, one of the largest e-commerce and online store in the world uses autonomous vehicles to boost productivity and speed in their warehouse locations across the U.S. After the purchase of Kiva Systems in 2012, Amazon started experimenting with autonomous “pickers” in several of their warehouses throughout the United States.

Once they introduced robotic “pickers” in their warehouses, Amazon saw immediate benefits from the squat, orange wheeled robots. Instead of having warehouse workers look for specific items, these automated warehouse vehicles find and transport product with more efficiency than ever before.

Instead of human workers walking from shelf to shelf finding a specific product, employees at some robot-equipped warehouses stand in one spot as the robots deliver four-foot-by-six-foot shelving units. By utilizing this optimized delivery system, workers are able to save about 20 miles of walking each day through the warehouse.

The process streamlines the entire process for the logistics process at the various Amazon distribution centers. At the robot-equipped warehouse about 20 self-toting robots can be lined up in front of a human worker. Employees can simply remove items from the shelves and place them in bins without the need for walking between warehouse locations.

Not only does using autonomous “pickers” in the logistics system increase speed and accuracy, they also save the company about 20-40% from the average cost of sorting, picking, and boxing an order. This means the optimized process helps Amazon meet fulfillment requests and keep their prices competitive.

Increased Shipping And Product Delivery

Even though autonomous technology is showing great promise for the future of online commerce, humans are still needed to complete many of the tasks. This means that using appropriate hazard cones in loading docs and around the warehouse is still needed. 

E-commerce will continue to drive retail sales, and as we approach the holiday season distribution centers will fall under increased pressure to distribute products with increased efficiency.

The evolution of autonomous vehicles will shape the future of our distribution channels and how companies approach distribution and shipping strategies.

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Author: Chris Giarratana

Chris is a Digital Media Strategy Consultant in Orlando, FL who specializes in developing marketing strategies for small businesses, researching emerging technologies, and enjoys studying transportation issues.

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