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Global insight: New advances in warehouse automation technology

This story was originally published in Planet Retail's IT & Supply Chain newsletter on Thursday 31 October.

In the strive for efficiency, retailers have identified warehouse automation as a key enabling technology. While automation solutions are available for most of the processes in a modern distribution centre, not all tasks necessary to handle a full-range retailer’s assortment can be fully automated yet. Even at the most advanced facilities, there is still potential for more automation, especially for tasks that have so far been solely performed manually. Now it looks like Delhaize is able to close one of these gaps at its already highly automated facilities in Zellik, near Brussels.

The Belgium-based retailer chose to automate 30 vehicles in its fresh products warehouses, starting in 2014, using technology from French start-up Balyo. The Movebox automation kit transforms standard battery-powered forklifts to driverless vehicles allowing pallets to be automatically collected from the picking zone, then transporting them to the dispatch area and dropping them off at the right loading dock. All the transporters will also remain operable in manual mode, allowing more flexible use.

While driverless vehicles are not new in the logistics world, the Balyo solution offers some distinguished features. One is that the automation kit adapts to any electrical forklift truck which reduces the necessary investments. What’s more, the implementation requires no additional infrastructure such as induction loops.

So, how does it work? The technology recognises its environment by emitting laser beams to establish its location while geo-guidance technology detects and identifies three dimensional objects, columns, racks and walls within the warehouse. Using these as fixed references, it can position itself in real time and determine its route. The forklift also recognises unexpected barriers - for example, an employee stepping in its way will cause it to brake - a feature that helps to reduce accidents.

The Balyo solution automates a task that has largely remained manual so far. Automating the transport of ready packed pallets from the picking to the truck load area would be very cost-intensive if realised with traditional conveyer belts. With the unmanned vehicles, Delhaize is also able to solve a problem that might even occur in the most automated warehouses: ready picked pallets awaiting shipment often take up a lot of space in the loading area of the DC. With the intelligent forklifts, Delhaize can bring the pallets to the dispatch area not only in an optimised and sequenced way, but also just in time.

Nevertheless, the new technology is not capable of replacing all manned vehicles in retailers’ DCs as the automated forklifts are not yet able to move their load vertically. Retrieving pallets from or storing them in a high bay warehouse cannot be managed with the existing solution. The unmanned vehicles would also be of little help for picking and packing, for example supporting a goods-to-man solution picking approach, as they can only handle full pallets. It would be useful for the forklifts to handle empty pallets as well.

If the driverless forklifts prove successful in the Zellik facility, more retailers may consider automating pallet transportation in their distribution centres. While this will further increase the automation level, a completely unmanned warehouse will remain utopian for quite a while. To develop a technology which is able to pick, pack and unpack the huge variety of products a full-range retailer stores and sells will be an extremely sophisticated task and possible solutions are highly unlikely to become economically viable in the foreseeable future.