How can sensors be used to increase warehouse automation?


Sensing and robots can gather valuable data for warehouse operators.
Sensors and robots can gather valuable data for warehouse operators. Source: Adobe Stock

Many of today’s warehouses have been or are in the process of transitioning from strictly manual or conventional processes to partially and eventually fully automated facilities. Depending on the level of sophistication, any process requires a variety of sensors to be automated. 

In August 2023, Gartner Inc. predicted that more than 75% of companies will automate their warehouses by 2027. Mobile robots and drones will play important roles in this transformation.

Basic functions/activities involved in a warehouse include receiving, moving, storing, inventorying, relocating, and shipping. Tracking and other control activities add to these basic functions, and with robots and automated vehicles, safety becomes even more important.

One company provides a variety of sensors and sensor-based warning devices for high-mobility warehouses, including:

  • Forklift detection sensors
  • Aisle alert floor warning and traffic light systems
  • Traffic warning projectors
  • Dock and door motion monitors
  • Infrared corner collision sensors

The storage and transport of products that have a shelf life or use-by date requires more sensing. So do items in environments controlled for temperature, humidity, vibration, light, and other factors.

Food and medical supplies are among the first items that come to mind, but sensitive items include books and artwork. Wine and bourbon also require additional perception for proper preservation and extended life.

Sensors, mobile robots, and drones are at different points in maturity.
Sensors, mobile robots, and drones are at different points in product and market maturity. Source: Gartner

Sensors and AI can control costs in the warehouse

Artificial intelligence can help warehouse operators more effectively use the data from numerous stationary systems, as well as sensors in transit to and from the warehouse. A modern warehouse can use AI to streamline workflows, improve safety, reduce overhead, and increase speed and efficiency.

A 2018 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that a typical warehouse cost more than $3.7 million in labor expenses annually, and that figure has no doubt risen since then. Warehouse owners and operators have significant motivation to increase automation.

Weight sensors, Global Positioning System (GPS) and radio frequency identification (RFID) trackers, beacons, cameras, and more, advanced software can provide real-time information. They can report on an item’s location for greater visibility of the inventory in stock and to minimize shrinkage.

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs), autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have their own integrated sensing. However, their proximity to workers dictates effective use of motion tracking and monitoring sensors and connectivity to the warehouse’s Internet of Things (IoT) network for safety and productivity.

Gartner’s study suggested that mobile robots will greatly outpace drones in the next three years. AMRs will rely on technologies such as machine learning for new behaviors or to react to unprecedented situations. Tactile and other sensing techniques could also play a critical role in extending the types of tasks that robots can perform.

With the optimal use of available or strategically added sensor data, a warehouse operator can have real-time tracking, reduced operating costs, improved performance, inventory management, automated maintenance, reduced risk/improved safety, detailed business analytics, and more.

Upcoming webinars in the 2024 Automated Warehouse webinar series will provide greater insight into changes occurring in warehouse automation. Register now to learn more.

Editor’s note: This article was syndicated from Automated Warehouse sibling site Sensor Tips.

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Written by

Randy Frank

Randy Frank is a freelancer writer at Randy Frank & Associates and a contributor to Sensor Tips and Design World, sibling sites to Automated Warehouse. He was previously a senior editor at Design World and served as a contributing editor to magazines including Electronic Design, Telematics Update, and Design News.