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Artificial intelligence (AI) in warehouse automation

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Wendy Harkins

Warehouse management must be efficient in today’s global marketplace for an organization to remain competitive. While conventional methods of management will remain important, improving efficiency now depends on adopting AI in warehouse automation. “Smart warehouses” now exist in which all operations from procurement to last-mile delivery are integrated with AI technology.

The Value of Artificial Intelligence in Warehouse Operations

Artificial intelligence results in a considerable value in warehouse operations through a variety of sub-technologies: natural language processing, machine learning, computer vision, and robotics. This is how each technology functions.

Machine learning employs algorithms in order to learn from experience and produce actionable decisions for warehouse activities. Using data collected through sensors, it recognizes patterns and makes suggestions such as quicker inventory replenishment of best sellers, better inventory positioning, and shorter walking routes.

Some AI functions enable wearable technology. This includes natural language processing for improved voice-picking that enables warehouse employees to operate safely and hands-free. Smart glasses come equipped with cameras that automatically recognize barcodes through computer vision technology. In addition, computer vision with cameras can conduct end-to-end product tracking.

Finally, robotics gives AI spatial awareness, a physical presence, and movement in the warehouse environment. An AI robot can load and unload pallets, transport cargo through the warehouse, or perform picking tasks.

Artificial general intelligence is the phrase for a more complex form of AI that performs intellectual tasks that a human may perform. This technology is still in the distant future. However, the above sub-tasks of artificial intelligence are foundational to achieving artificial general intelligence, which will enable warehouse activities to be conducted nearly autonomously.

What to Expect from AI

Productivity

One of the best methods to determine the success of adopting AI is to track warehouse productivity. You can expect compelling increases in productivity. An AI solution can improve pick-and-pack processes, scan digital tags for meticulous inventory controls, pinpoint the shortest routes, and improve loading trucks for safer transport. In addition, AI solutions can work without interruption 24/7.

Safety

Another key benefit to AI in warehouse automation is safety. You can use AI solutions to monitor operations and assess the risk scores of various warehouse activities. AI robots can assume high-risk work, which allows humans to carry out safer activities. In addition, AI solutions used with VR and AR devices may be utilized for training purposes so that staff members are appropriately educated on standard operating procedures. This minimizes the risks of physical injuries, and your employees are trained using a risk-free method.

Accuracy

Improving accuracy is a key component of improving efficiency. Deploying AI solutions can reduce errors in warehouse management and operations. AI robots can accurately sort, transport, arrange, stock, and retrieve inventory items as required. Warehouses can adopt technology such as machine learning, IoT, and computer vision to work alongside AI solutions to increase operational accuracy. These applications are already in use in major global organizations like Alibaba and Amazon. And some of these warehouses have AI robots that complete up to 70% of the work without humans.

Selecting AI Functions

Your business will benefit from integrating AI in warehouse automation if you follow a multi-step analysis for determining which tasks to automate first.

Link to your strategic objective. AI can accomplish some exciting tasks. Not all of those tasks will be necessary for your specific needs. Prior to integrating AI processes, link each process to your company’s strategic objective to ensure the investment and temporary disruption is appropriate.

Define the AI goal. Are you seeking a solution to a specific business-critical problem, or are you seeking to improve health and safety? Your goals will help determine which AI functions to adopt.

Determine which KPIs will measure success. Pinpoint these KPIs in advance to measure success or locate problems with integration that must be solved.

Determine the case owner. You will need to designate a case owner to be responsible and assume ownership of the project.

Decide which AI approach to integrate. Linking this to your strategic objective, decide which AI approach to use, which could be deep learning, machine learning, or computer vision.

Assess infrastructure and technology. You will need to make changes to infrastructure and technology. Take into account the systems, hardware, and software your organization will need.

Assess skills and capacity. You need staff with the skills to achieve your AI goals. You may need to hire and train new employees or partner with an external service provider. You will find actionable information on how to choose a 3pl provider here.

Implement. Anticipate and address potential challenges during implementation such as disruptions to your supply chain. Create a detailed solution and contingency plan. Make plans for managing change. AI will lead to significant changes, and you need to be prepared for automating and streamlining business processes.

Robots and Artificial General Intelligence

As noted above, artificial general intelligence is still in the future. However, deep reinforcement learning (DRL) is unlocking the greater potential for robotics, enabling them to react to their surroundings and operate well despite product variations. In fact, robots now learn through experience with cameras and deep neural networks.

With adequate practice and data, robots now learn new abilities like winning video games and identifying images. With each task, a robot becomes smarter and better at mastering the activity. Plus, robots connected through the cloud share their learning with each other. Now, robotics solutions are more flexible, dextrous, and scalable.

Why Warehouses Make Great Testing Grounds for AI

Warehouse automation is an excellent environment for testing these technologies. They have tasks that are repetitive and similar across a wide array of warehouses. Warehouses are highly structured. For instance, order picking can account for over 40% of operational costs, and labor is a significant expense as well. Because robots typically work well with little variation in packaging design and products, AI is making it possible to program robots to overcome those obstacles. The savings and efficiency show up positively on the bottom line.

For more than 20 years, Pallet Market Inc. has supplied quality wood pallets to customers throughout Southern California.