Global Material Handling System Integrators

Emerging Technologies: Mobile Robotics in Distribution Center Automation


When you think about warehouse or distribution center automation, what equipment comes to mind--conveyor systems, conventional palletizers, or maybe sortation systems?  Although each is extremely useful in today's warehouse and DC automation, the introduction of advanced mobile robotics will change the landscape of tomorrow's industrial facilities. With the convergence of enabling technologies--such as automated guided vehicles (AGV's), high speed, 6-axis robotic arms, vision systems, and 3 dimensional data models--mobile robotics will play a vital role in improving manual labor processes, while also improving quality and increasing throughput.

Improving Manual Processes

Typical manual processes such as receiving, picking, packing, and shipping are tough, particularly when heavy or hazardous products are involved.  Add in less than ideal working conditions, such as extremely hot or cold climate, and these manual processes become even tougher. Unfortunately, this often leads to employee turnover and inconsistent fulfillment both in quality and on-time delivery.

Meeting Demand

Another factor increasing the need for mobile robotics is the rise in e-fulfillment orders. With order volumes for these products on the rise, relative to conventional orders, there is a growing need for flexible and reliable material handling solutions. The latest advances in mobile robotics are allowing distributors to fulfill this need without putting strain on their workers or other resources.

Safety Concerns

The increasing use of robotics in the industrial sector often creates some safety concerns for employers and workers when these robots interact closely with humans without physical barriers or safety fencing. To combat these concerns, The National Institute of Standards and Technology is currently working on merging elements of safety standards for AGV's with close-proximity robots. So as the new world of mobile robotics begins to emerge, so are the safety standards associated with them.


With advances in the dexterity of End of Arm Tooling (a.k.a. the "hands" of the robots) as well as the vision sensors, robots will be able to take on more and more of the tough jobs within the industrial environment.  In the next 10 years, we will see an increase in mobile robotic applications within distribution centers helping to improve productivity, accuracy, and overall throughput of order fulfillment. Do you agree or disagree? What are your opinions about the future of mobile robotics? Please leave your comments below.

Author: Bill Bastian II

Bill began his career at Bastian Solutions back in 1987. As an engineer and entrepreneur, he enjoyed helping with the growth of his family-based business. During his tenure, he was involved with most all material handling technologies: robotics, AS/RS, sortation, Warehouse Management Systems (WMS), Warehouse Control Systems (WCS), RFID, Pick to Light, Pick to Display, etc.  While President of Bastian Solutions, he provided  the vision for where the company would go in the future, providing value to customers and a great working environment for employees. Bill retired from Bastian Solutions in 2019, after the company was purchased by Toyota Advanced Logistics North America.


Victor Hoerst says:
8/28/2018 10:07 AM

Bill, You are correct about multi-axis robot arms and end of arm tools being used in distribution applications. Your followers can follow this link to see an example of a multi axis robot being used with a LayerPicker to automatically depalletize pallets of beverage products to replenish an automated order fulfillment module Victor Logistics Connections

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8/28/2018 10:07 AM

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Robotic Automation says:
8/28/2018 10:07 AM

Very interesting information! Thanks for the help!

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