How today's chosen logistics carriers (e.g. pallet / roll container) will have a major influence on future pick and place robot automation steps.
1. History of parcel carriers
Parcel carriers have played a pivotal role in the transportation and logistics industry for centuries. Over time, these carriers have evolved significantly to meet the growing demands of businesses and consumers alike. From the early use of pallets to the introduction of roll containers/roller cages and loose loaded trucks, the history of parcel carriers is a fascinating journey of innovation and efficiency.
Pallets, a key element in modern logistics, have their roots in ancient transportation methods. However, the standardized use of pallets gained prominence in the early 20th century. These platforms revolutionized material handling, enabling efficient loading, transport, and unloading of goods. Pallets also paved the way for automated systems, optimizing warehousing and distribution processes.
Roller Cages: Advancing Efficiency
In the mid-20th century, roller cages, also known as roll cages or rolltainers, emerged as a significant innovation. These wheeled containers streamlined the movement of parcels within warehouses and distribution centers, reducing the physical strain on workers. Roller cages also facilitated the implementation of automated systems for parcel handling, enhancing productivity and precision.
Loose Loaded: maximum space utilization
In recent decades, flexible freight handling methods have become increasingly popular as a response to the evolving landscape of parcel transportation. Trucks designed for loose loading have emerged, boasting cutting-edge systems that enable them to handle parcels of diverse sizes and shapes with remarkable adaptability. This transformation has proven particularly relevant in the era of e-commerce, where the need for carriers that can accommodate a wide range of parcel sizes is paramount.
2. The next steps in automating flexible stacking processes for different carriers.
In the ever-evolving logistics sector, logistics automation has become a cornerstone, promising enhanced efficiency and productivity. In this exploration, we delve into the realm of flexible stacking automation for the three carrier types mentioned above, which leverages advanced AI and robotics technologies, to uncover its distinct advantages and challenges.
Pallet stacking offers a low-cost automation option that seamlessly integrates with AI and robotics. Thanks to standardized footprint sizes, this carrier approach requires standardized hardware components. Due to its relative small but standardized size, automation solutions and human workers around the world are capable of transporting and storing pallets with great efficiency. From a robotic, AI and vision point of view, pallets do not obstruct camera’s and do not limit robot movements enabling a large flexibility of using different hardware and software implementations for efficient AI-powered stacking solutions.
Despite its cost-effectiveness, pallet stacking systems may face challenges when handling irregularly shaped or sized parcels, somewhat limiting their versatility. Especially when stacking processes require to stack high (2+ meter) on pallets, irregular shapes and deformable products can make stackings unstable. This could lead to higher levels of damages during transport or human/automated handling processes later on.
Roll Container/Cage Stacking:
Roll containers and mail carts are inherently designed to accommodate the rising varieties of parcel parameters. By stacking and transporting these parcels within closed cages, damages are reduced and a more efficient volumetric efficiency could be reached by stacking higher without the danger of the stack falling to one of the sides. This last feature of roll cages, the closed sides, is also a major benefit for automation solutions. Stability, especially with many deformable and shape invariant objects, is a challenge when it comes to stacking efficiently with (robotic) automation solutions.
However, the closed design of roll containers may limit stacking capacity for robotic systems, impacting overall operational efficiency. Since moving robotic arms within closed spaces without have any collisions is challenging, the usage of roll cages in combination with robotic arms requires a new level of motion intelligence in order to be efficient. Another difficulty for automation systems are the small, but significant dimension and build differences between the roll cages used by different logistic companies. This makes it more difficult to build modular solutions that could be used with the same level of scalability, which makes these systems more costly.
Loose Loaded Stacking:
Loose loaded stacking distinguishes itself through unparalleled volumetric efficiency option, that is, if boxes are stacked in an optimized efficient way. The incorporation of AI-guided robotics maximizes cargo space utilization by implementing the power of AI to solve the complex puzzle of how to load a whole truck as efficient as possible. Because of this, automation solutions become more and more financially feasible, where the increased transport efficiency and labour automation presents a valid business case. With current stage of robotic, vision and AI developments, loading systems are quickly improving cycle times and throughput that could improve this even more.
Loose loading poses significant challenges for robotic and AI automation. The limited moving space within cargo compartments restricts the mobility of robots, hindering their ability to navigate efficiently. The high complexity of stacking diverse parcels into a cohesive and balanced stack demands intricate AI algorithms and precision, making the process prone to instabilities. There’s also a notable risk of stacks toppling over midway through the stacking process, resulting in potential damage to parcels and operational delays. Moreover, the task of moving boxes to the top of the stack without contacting the ceiling presents further difficulties, demanding careful coordination and spatial awareness from automation systems.
3. Collaborative Future Planning
The future of parcel carriers and automation will be shaped by technological advancements, sustainability imperatives, and industry collaboration. Automators and logistics professionals must work together to anticipate the evolving needs of the industry, ensuring that automation systems are adaptable, secure, and environmentally responsible. As automation continues to play a central role in logistics, its success will depend on the ability to integrate cutting-edge technologies, prioritize sustainability, and align with the broader goals of the industry. A collaborative approach is essential to crafting a future where carrier usage is optimized for efficiency, sustainability, and long-term success. At the same time, technology providers should focus on improving the adaptability of their products to provide long-term value to ever changing logistic processes, like the use of carriers. With the RoboStackr, Viroteq aims to provide such a solution that can handle the different carriers (pallets / roll containers) of both today and tomorrow.