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Picking Robots

Nothing will slow your warehouse down like slow picking times. Walking and manually grabbing items usually accounts for more than 50 percent of the time associated with picking. You can cut your picking times in half by having robots collect these items instead of having your team do it by hand. Most associates can pick anywhere from 60 to 80 items per hour, while picking robots can collect as many as 300 items per hour. Now that’s a lot of picks.

However, not all picking robots are created equal. There are generally two types of automated picking systems — swarming robots and system-directed picking robots. These machines work in similar ways, but each method comes with its fair share of pros and cons. Learn more about this technology to increase efficiency at every turn.

What Are Swarming Robots?

Swarming robots, just like system-directed picking robots, are teams of small machines that travel around the floor, collecting items from the shelf. The difference is how they operate.

Swarming robots are generally more independent than their directed counterparts. The robots swarm to a specific location and wait for instructions on which item to pick. Associates may assign tasks and items to individual robots when they aren’t in use, or the system may automatically assign items to robots based on their current proximity.

These robots are normally used for order picking, cycle counting and restocking. They’re best suited for smaller facilities and those with wide aisles where robots can quickly navigate inventory on their own. The robot shouldn’t have to go too far out of its way to reach the item in question. Most swarming robots are stationed in separate zones, so the most popular items are always within reach.

What Are System-Directed Picking Robots?

System-directed robots need a little more direction than their swarming counterparts. They are typically paired with an associate who dictates tasks and items in real-time. Some workers may control more than one robot at a time as they travel to the designated location. The machine can even pick up more than one item along the way for faster retrieval times.

They are often used for order picking, sequential picking and stocking, cycle counting and restocking. Some machines may be assigned to distinct zones, so there’s an even number of robots spread throughout the facility. System-directed robots are the preferred choice when operating a large facility with thousands of different SKUs.

Differences Between the Two

The main difference between system-directed and swarming robots starts with the installation process. Larger spaces need more pickers. Calculating how many robots you need varies from one strategy to the next.

For example, system-directed systems typically need around 1.5 robots for every associate, while swarm systems are based on the square footage of the facility. If you have 50,000 square feet, you might need eight pickers, which would require 12 robots. The more workers you add, the more robots you’ll need. Under the swarming model, a 500,000 square-foot facility would need 10x as many robots as a 50,000 square-foot facility.

You generally need more swarming robots than system-directed robots when bringing this technology online, which will add to your overhead. However, system-directed robots tend to require more manpower, so you’ll still need to keep your team in place as these robots get to work. Having associate assign tasks and direct robots in real-time increases efficiency. They can react in real-time as new orders come in, so the robot returns to the loading dock as soon as possible.

Swarming robots also tend to be smaller than system-directed robots, which makes it difficult for them to hold more than one package at a time. System-directed machines can pick up multiple items in the same trip for faster retrieval times.

swarming robots

When to Use One Over the Other

If your facility is on the smaller side, swarming robots should help you automate the picking process. The machines will stay near the inventory at all times until an order comes in. This gives your team the freedom to focus on other tasks.

As your facility gets larger or takes on more inventory, consider going with system-directed robots instead. These machines have clear advantages in larger settings. You can easily add more workers and robots as your space increases, so you can scale your business with ease.

Using swarm robots in a large space can sap productivity. It may take the machine several minutes to reach the item in question if there aren’t enough robots in the field. Swarming robots also need plenty of space to navigate aisles and corners on their own. They should be able to move past each other without getting stuck as they roam different aisles simultaneously.

The width of your aisles only needs to be a little larger than the width of the system-directed robot, such as 42 inches, while swarming robots generally need at least 60 inches to operate autonomously.

swarm robots

Additional Considerations for Efficient Picking Times

Both systems can help you improve efficiency and reduce picking times, but you don’t have to use a robot every time you need something from the shelf.

Instead of automating the entire picking process, use containers that make it easier for your workers to retrieve items. For example, industrial wire baskets keep your inventory visible, so workers can quickly recognize the contents without second-guessing themselves. You can speed up the picking process without having to invest thousands of dollars in the latest technology.

Some items aren’t made to be picked up by a robot. Put large, cumbersome products and supplies, such as metal frames, cords and raw industrial materials, in metal storage containers. Keep these essentials close to your team, so your workers can grab these items from the shelf without going out of their way.

There’s always more than one way to pick items off the shelf. Swarming and system-directed robots can help you speed up this process but use this technology wisely to reap the full benefits of automation.

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