Dark – the new light of the warehouse
Have you ever wondered what goes behind the screens once you place an order on your computer monitor in front of you? Before the order reaches you within a 24- or 48-hour window, what would have been its journey?
Well, if you would notice in the last 14-15 years of its onset, ecommerce industry has been a synonym for ‘explosive growth’ and there has been an exponential rise in terms of the no. of SKUs they handle, delivery times from being anywhere from 10 days to 24 hour delivery. Ecommerce has not only transformed how the businesses work but has forever changed the customer’s behaviour. The ‘want it now’ attitude of the customers is forcing businesses to upgrade their systems and processes to meet these expectations and are assorting to automation by introducing autonomous mobile robots, AGVs, driverless forklifts, palletizing robots, ASRS systems, automatic picking units through MPVs, cobots, mobile robots, sorter robots, tilt-tray sorters, robotic packaging & depackaging units, powerful softwares such as WMS, WES, MES, cloud solutions, a web of IoT solutions that provide visibility into everything inside the four walls of the warehouse, and to perfectly sync all the systems in real-time all the time.
If you could conceptualize one such warehouse, yes, you are right there & welcome to the wonderful world of ‘dark warehousing’!!!
So, what is it?
To define the nomenclature, a dark warehouse is a fully automated warehouse that operates without the use of human labor. Literally put off all the lights and let the warehouse function on its own. There is another definition also to it, which says warehouse that fully automated material handling systems – here the main reference is to the ASRS Systems, high speed sortation systems, mobile robots, and warehouse execution systems.
The ecommerce boom and the need for speed are the primary drivers for the dark warehousing concept as the completely automated systems increase the speed of operations by a manifold, ensure delivery of 100% accurate orders and improve overall safety aspects of the warehouse. One of the other key factors is the need for space, because the rising real estate rentals were directly taking a bite from the profit margin share & automation is the best way to improve space utilization and create additional space within the existing space, examples like dense racking through pallet shuttles or carton shuttles, crane based ASRS systems etc.
How do they work?
In case of dark warehouses, all the functions of warehousing i.e., inbound, storage, picking and outbound are completely automated & all these systems work in perfect sync with one another plus the other ancillary systems such as front end Order Management System, Vendor Management System, Truck Management System, Personnel management system..etc. Like all the inbound orders will be well planned and received through automatic telescopic conveyors which will supply the carton loads from different suppliers/vendors to the robotic palletization units where palletization of the similar SKUs is done. These pallets can be sent for storage through a fleet of driverless forklifts, where they deliver it to the automatic storage and retrieval systems. Once an order comes on these pallets, they will be fetched out of the system, sent for depalletizing robotic units and finally the cartons will be taken by the mobile robots either to the outbound order sequencing area with a carton shuttle ASRS or to the robotic decanting stations, where the items from the cartons will be poured onto the crates, which will again be stored in a carton shuttle ASRS system. Retrieval of these cartons will be done when the items need to be picked, which can be done through stationary robotic bin picking units. The packaging of these cartons/crates can be done through tunnel-based systems on the smart conveyors. After packing the orders will be sorted based on location codes or carrier type or any such criteria through a fleet of sorting robots & the sorted parcels will be loaded on to the trucks for dispatch again by the use of mobile robots. In the entire process if you observe there is a little or no human intervention.
These dark warehouses can function on a 24*7 basis, ensure zero human error, there will not be any shift charges and provide complete visibility of the entire operations and enable data driven decision making. However, these completely automated systems are quite expensive, and require a thoroughly defined automation strategy in place. As a concept it has emerged in the European countries when some large organizations installed highly automated systems with some regular equipment like conveyors. With the kind of capital investments, it requires, it is still possible for large organizations, hence its adoption rate is not that high. Also, dark warehouses are also not as flexible in operation for picking, packing, and shipping- For handling a variety of SKUs, the systems need to be tuned accordingly, which is not that easy. So, dark warehouses have been more popular for industries where there are a smaller number of SKUs or uniformity of SKUs in terms of its size and shape.
Despite dark warehousing appears as the panacea to achieve the best KPIs of the industry, it has been quite elusive since a decade. Because in the ever-changing volatile business world, investment in 100% automation seems quite bold and companies have been apprehensive about it; maturity of the technology, staff skills, organized or unorganized nature of the business ..etc might have been a couple of other factors. Whether warehouses become completely dark or not might be a question for the future, but the increased use of automation in warehouses is a booster & is the right way to realize the efficiencies.