Robots and people in warehouses – is that safe?

Robots and people in warehouses – is that safe?

Robots in warehouses are becoming more and more common. Both the suppliers of forklifts and warehouse owners focus on the market of mobile autonomic machines. Technologically advanced sensors are designed to keep robots away from people and objects. But is that enough to be considered safe? Do employees know how to handle them?

There is already a whole range of "robots" in warehouses. We can distinguish:

  • Unmanned transport trolleys – the basic form of robotisation; these are trolleys for transporting inside warehouses without the driver. They are used to transport pallets from place A to place B or to set them. Their advantage is the fact that in the event of a failure they can be handled manually. As they are mass-produced, their costs are relatively low.
  • Semi-automatic transport trolleys – e.g. trolleys used for narrow corridors which, when a button is pressed, find the route to the next storage locations by themselves or pickers which follow the warehouse employee.
  • Specially produced automatically controlled vehicles – trolleys which can transport pallets from place A to place B; they can follow people and react to human gestures. It is also worth noting the latest solutions in navigation technology. Using lasers which react to headlights suspended in specific places is the most popular one but you can now also use vision systems or QR code boards located on the floor for navigation.
  • Automated vehicles with robotic arms which can not only move to a pallet or a container but using the gripper can also pick up objects from the pallet or container. Then the goods are placed in a box to be shipped or on another load carrier. These robots could potentially replace the warehouse staff responsible for ordering.
  • Flying robots – drones, used mainly for counting stock but in research centres there are already experiments with drones that collect and transport objects.

Could these be the last years of manned warehouses?

Although the role of a human being in a warehouse is gradually decreasing, this does not mean that they become unnecessary. Flemish Institute of Logistics (VIL) dealing with, among others, the research of how to use robots in logistics, has carried out studies that show that although the current generation of robots does a great job of doing basic work, they lack precision and speed which means that they are unsuitable for human replacement. Most of the machines that are currently being created are used rather to support employees than to replace them. The support, however, means that interaction is necessary. This can lead to dangerous situations.

Safe robots – dangerous people

The new generation of robotic arms no longer needs to be places behind tall grids to do their job. The robots have sensitive sensors that stop the work if a person gets too close. It is much more difficult to predict human behaviour in contact with robots. The automated vehicles are generally slower than typical forklifts. This might lead to frustration on the part of the drivers and ill-advised manoeuvres aimed at either overtaking the slow forklift or choosing other aisles and colliding with other employees. If the interaction between robots and humans is risky it is rather due to the unpredictable employees than the programmed robots.

Therefore, anyone planning to use robots in their warehouses should take a critical look at their processes and equipment. Thanks to properly preparing the warehouse for automation you can avoid the meeting of forklift operators with automatic forklifts which is positive for efficiency. Interaction with robots should also be the subject matter of special training. How safe are the robots? That is down to us.