Robotic Solutions

Solve Dock Challenges with Robotic Unloading

Blog
July, 2020

If you asked a DC operator which area of their facility is the most challenging for their workforce, there’s a good chance they’ll tell you it’s the unloading dock. And if you follow that up by asking where they have the highest rates of injuries, worker turnover, absenteeism and other headaches, you’ll probably get the same answer.

It’s not hard to see why the dock causes so many challenges for DCs. To begin with, unloading trailers is demanding work. It’s dull, repetitive and strenuous. Extreme temperatures, especially in summer and winter, make working conditions even more unpleasant. Human labor often can’t (or won’t) keep pace with the sheer volume of trailers that need to be unloaded to keep a DC running at their optimal rate. And finding enough labor to fill available dock positions is increasingly challenging.

While truck unloading has long been a target for automation, previous approaches were hindered by prohibitive performance, integration and cost factors. Today, however, the newest advances in gripping technology and robot control systems are finally making efficient solutions available. 

These innovations have arrived at an opportune time, when increasing labor scarcity makes every human worker more valuable than ever. Roughly 10,000 baby boomers have reached the traditional retirement age of 65 every day since 2011, and there are fewer younger workers available to replace them. 

COVID-19 dealt the industry a further blow, impacting the workforce with lockdowns, illnesses and increased absenteeism — even as e-commerce demand spiked by more than 50 percent. While a spike in unemployment in other sectors has given a temporary boost to the available labor pool in the short term, social distancing is impacting productivity; but in the long term, worker scarcity is only going to get worse. DCs that want to remain competitive will need to act quickly before employment levels normalize.

By fully integrating next-generation technologies, Honeywell Intelligrated has created the most capable robotic unloader in the industry. This robot has the visual and processing capabilities needed to identify the wide SKU variety of case sizes seen in the distribution center, planning actions accordingly for an innovative combination of unloading tools. Unlike many previous attempts to automate the dock, the robotic unloader requires no special modifications to trailers or containers and doesn’t need floor coverings to do its job. Random loading patterns that could pose issues for an articulated arm or other earlier automation systems are no trouble for the robotic unloader, thanks to the combination of an end-of-arm picking tool with the sweeping capability of an extendable nose conveyor. That holds true whether you’re unloading cases, polybags or jiffy bags — or any combination among them.

A robust operating algorithm minimizes jams with the assistance of an integrated unscrambler and dynamic side guides. Products are unloaded in a semi-singulated flow, which makes other parts of your supply chain run smoother.

When you factor all these advantages together, you’ll see that robotic unloaders can more than double the productivity of manual processes while handling packages with greater care. They’re smart enough to work without constant supervision, handling truckloads of boxes, polybags and jiffy bags shift after shift, in any kind of weather. 

This automated unloading solution dramatically changes the labor equation. A single operator can supervise up to five fully automated unloaders, effectively reducing the labor burden by up to 80 percent or more. In such a scenario, a loading dock team could drop from a crew of eight or nine employees to just one supervisor. Peak performance is the norm, easily sustained for the entire shift, and scarce labor can be reallocated to more rewarding, higher-value tasks. This reduces injuries, absenteeism and overtime costs while improving morale.

See the robotic unloader in action.

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