Robotics Applications for Logistics

Optimizing retail distribution and fulfillment using machine vision and robotics technologies

By Mike Poe, Global Content, Cognex

Transforming Retail Distribution & E-commerce Fulfillment With Robotics

In 2022, retail e-commerce sales exceeded 5.7 trillion U.S. dollars worldwide, accounting for nearly 19% of global retail sales1 . At the same time, the average cost to fulfill an online order is 70% of the average order value2 , and each item can be manually handled 20 times or more3 . Using robotics to assist with fulfillment operations can help online retailers reduce the costs associated with fulfillment and manual handling.

Consumers expect 1–2-day delivery while refusing to pay extra for it, and speed of delivery is a significant criterion in choosing a retailer. To compete with Amazon, retailers have adopted new distribution models, including buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) and direct shipping to the customer.

These conditions have put severe pressure on distribution centers with picking, packing, sorting, and shipping functions that could not cost-effectively meet delivery window expectations, either in direct shipping or order preparation for store pickup. Tight labor markets have created staffing challenges, leading more companies to invest in robotic automation.

Robotics Technologies for Retail Distribution

In response to these challenges, distribution and fulfillment centers are increasingly turning to robotics to replace humans in repetitive, physically strenuous tasks, saving employees for jobs with greater value-add. By one estimate, the average U.S. warehouse worker spends nearly 38% of their working day getting from one place to another to handle, pick, pack, and do other tasks4 . Robotics makes modifying and upgrading operations easier, which also makes it easier to meet changing market requirements quickly.

Successful robotics implementations depend heavily on machine vision to guide robots, perform visual product quality inspections, measure and inspect packages for pick and pack accuracy, and identify products as they move through the supply chain.

Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)

Moving inventory, supplies, or bulk items once took a human and a forklift. Over the course of decades, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and smaller automated guided carts (AGCs) have been replacing human-operated forklifts due to their safety and efficiency.

AGVs follow predetermined tracks and are typically laser-guided, using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology, infrared lighting, and vision systems to avoid collisions and accurately position themselves.

When AGVs transport pallets, they must capture information from pallet barcodes to ensure the right pallet is selected, the inventory system is correctly updated, and the pallet is taken to the correct destination. A pallet often has multiple codes located randomly across its width and height. The most efficient way to process these codes is to read them all simultaneously.

Due to rough handling, pallet code labels are often folded, damaged, or obscured by plastic film. Embedding an image-based barcode reading solution, such as a DataMan® fixed-mount barcode reader augmented by a High Speed Steerable Mirror, onto the AGV enables all codes to be read at the first attempt, regardless of their condition, orientation, or surface.

Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)

An autonomous mobile robot (AMR) is equipped with various sensors, maps, and processing power to create routes to the required destination, instantly rerouting when encountering obstacles. They navigate the warehouse using various methods, including machine vision, where Cognex DataMan image-based barcode readers decode 2D codes posted on the floor to navigate a warehouse grid. LiDAR is used in more complex models to minimize accidental collisions with objects in its path.

Person-to-Goods (P2G)

Systems Zone-picking collaborative AMRs know where goods are located and help humans locate and pick the desired SKUs. Workers efficiently scan the items using a hands-free, image-based barcode reader mounted on the AMR cart. Once the order is completed, the AMR transports its container to the next zone and, when completed, to the packing station.

Goods-to-Person (G2P)

Systems AMRs can move mobile shelves containing the desired item to a picking station and wait in line with other shelf-toting AMRs, where a human, directed by pick-to-light or other methods, picks the item off the shelf and puts it in the order bin.

Cognex Machine Vision-Enabled Robotics Applications

Machine vision is essential in automating logistics operations, which is equally true in logistics robotics, providing guidance, identification, gauging, and inspection capabilities.

Robots integrate well with Cognex Modular Vision Tunnels and hands-free barcode readers by providing consistent and reliable pick and place operations that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Examples include:

  • Picking items from gaylords or bins and placing them onto the conveyor that leads through a scan tunnel
  • Picking products from a bin or tote, passing them under an overhead mounted barcode reader for tracking, then packing them into a shipping carton
  • Grabbing shipping cases, passing them in front of one or more hands-free barcode readers, then stacking them on a pallet


Robots can work alongside human beings, take on the more physically demanding and repetitive tasks, and use space with increasing effectiveness. They will infiltrate warehouses and storefronts, ensuring that stock is maintained and deliveries are made quickly. Logistics managers will have many different systems to choose from but know that robots are part of their future.

1 Worldwide Economic Forecast 2023: Digital Sales Growth Will Accelerate Modestly as Stability and Predictability Finally Return, content/worldwide-ecommerce-forecast-2023#page-report


3 AMERIPEN, Optimizing Packaging for an E-commerce World,

4 Voice of the Warehouse Worker Whitepaper –

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