One of the unfortunate realities of the warehousing industry is that it isn’t particularly safe. Of the 2.8 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2019, approximately 8% came from the warehousing industry, with injuries occurring at a rate of 4.8 for every 100 full-time workers. According to a report from Liberty Mutual, nonfatal industries in warehousing and transportation cost companies more than $84 billion per week in 2018 – that’s around $240,000 per year for each of the 18,171 warehouses that were surveyed.
Multinational conglomerate Honeywell (NASDAQ: HON) is hoping to solve that problem and boost productivity at the same time. The corporation announced Thursday that it will be unveiling robotic technology that can automate the unloading of pallets, reducing the potential for injury and mitigating the effect of labor shortages.
Honeywell’s new Smart Flexible Depalletizer is driven by machine learning and advanced vision and perception technologies to fill in for the thousands of pallets that are picked by hand in warehouses across the country every day. Picking pallets manually can lead to human error and, of course, a variety of injuries, including being struck by falling objects or harmed while moving pallets with a forklift.
“Even when manual operations are running smoothly without injuries, the physical, repetitive task of unloading pallets is variable and limited by human constraints,” said Thomas Evans, chief technology officer at Honeywell Robotics. “Our Smart Flexible Depalletizer helps improve throughput by operating consistently without interruption over multiple shifts with minimal human interaction. With the labor constraints warehouses and distribution centers are seeing in filling these manual roles, this solution can be an ideal fit to help keep up with daily order volumes.”
High-powered perception technology acts as the eyes of the depalletizer’s robotic arm, allowing it to pick from single- or mixed-SKU pallets that are fixed or on the move. Visual technology helps the arm map the locations of the cases, while perceptual software identifies the packaging, allowing for pallets to flow in any order or sequence without the need for preprogramming.
Not only does Honeywell’s new robot have eyes, it has a brain too. The Smart Flexible Depalletizer utilizes machine learning to optimize the robotic arm’s movement and boost speed and efficiency. First, the depalletizer’s control logic senses the weight of the item being picked and adjusts the arm’s grip automatically to ensure the case is secure. As it picks, the robot “learns” from each iteration, becoming more effective every time it unloads a pallet.
It can also work alongside pallet conveyance autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), allowing the system to continue operating while operators gain the flexibility to move pallets and empty stacks wherever they need to.
According to a Honeywell study, more than half of the companies surveyed say they’d be willing to invest in automation. Those companies say that automation accelerates the speed of tasks, boosts productivity and increases employee utilization for a role that often carries a high rate of injury risk and staff turnover.
“Reliable depalletizing rates are of growing importance as consumer preferences continue to accelerate the rate of packing and the increasing product mix warehouses and distribution centers handle every day,” said Evans. “These major technology improvements are driving fully automated solutions capable of meeting or exceeding the throughput of manual operations. Not only do these solutions offer significant benefits to modern distribution centers and other fulfillment operations, the business case for their utilization is also increasingly attractive.”
Honeywell will showcase its Smart Flexible Depalletizer at this year’s PACK EXPO International trade show in Las Vegas next Monday through Wednesday at booth C-4436.