E-commerce warehouse robotics – speed, safety, and scalability

Luis Barros
14 August, 23

The UK has one of the most mature e-commerce markets. High demands from customers – who tend to want their parcels yesterday – are heightening the need for greater efficiencies in fulfilment centres and warehouses.

In 2020, the warehouse automation market size in the UK amounted to over US$1.3 billion, according to Statista[1]. In that same year, the UK was the leading spender in warehouse automation.[2] While the Covid-driven boom in e-commerce orders has flattened out, retailers and their logistics partners continue to invest in automation and robotics for supply chain efficiency and to overcome the issue of labour shortages post-Brexit.

This technology can significantly increase the speed of operations, as big players such as Amazon and Ocado have demonstrated in recent years with their picking and packing solutions. Conveyor belt improvements mean belts and chutes can accurately sort multiple items every second. Robotic arms which are articulated can pack goods into boxes and apply labels. These innovations are already helping companies manage costs, deal with hiring shortfalls, and improve safety and service levels.

Scalability is another advantage. Businesses can use robots to increase warehouse capacity and manage larger volumes, making it easier for businesses to flex their operations in line with real-time demand.

Moving with the times

Today robotic mechanisms are becoming increasingly intricate and sophisticated in what can be achieved, with more logic and mobility built into the robots. In an industry first, Asendia UK has successfully installed automated sorting and six new robots for over-labelling[3] at our parcel processing centre at Heathrow, fully operational from the end of March 2022.

The system has boosted parcel throughput for our clients – e-commerce retailers. Asendia UK has invested £2.5m of CAPEX in these improvements and is already seeing a host of benefits to the business and our retailer partners.

The robotic arms were specially developed for rapid over-labelling of parcels. These are speeding up an essential pre-shipping process on behalf of our global retail clients, including Asos.com, Chilly’s, and Urban Outfitters. Combined with new automated sorting technology, which also went live in 2022, the Heathrow system has dramatically reduced parcel handling touchpoints, so we can process at a rate of up to 7,200 parcels per hour.

Parcels arrive onsite and an automated cross-belt sorter, with scanners, printers, digital photography, and six robots, together take care of the relabelling, routing, sorting, weighing, containerising, and dimension-checking of parcels. The system has maximum flexibility for despatch, able to sort into bags, or pallet boxes.

Bags of benefits from automation

Thanks to this switch to automated parcel processing, retailers’ shipments can catch earlier flights and road haulage departures, meaning shoppers get hold of their items sooner. A big win for us here at Asendia UK is that peak trading, typically in the run-up to Christmas, has been easier to manage, with less risk of delays to parcel processing. A great deal of highly demanding manual work has been taken out of the equation, allowing warehouse staff to be redeployed into other parts of the business.

It’s also now possible to access valuable data, collected by the automated system and its photographic elements, to help improve service levels, spot problems and forecast more accurately. Having volumetrics for all parcels will help with revenue protection and better control of sizing, which is a key driver within distribution networks. Equally, having photos of all parcels is a very good security benefit for ourselves and our retail clients.

Was embracing robotic arms worth it?

Has the upheaval and cost of automating these elements paid off for us? Certainly, ROI targets are being achieved. Retail clients are impressed. Employees are less frazzled at peak. We’ve won new business on the back of the reliability and speed we offer. And ultimately, we’re running a smoother, safer operation.

There are dangers of over-automating fulfilment operations where specialist services might be required by retailers. With this in mind, we built a level of flexibility into our Heathrow automation project, at workable points of the parcel journey. This allows for some scope for specialist exceptions where needed, such as unusually shaped or personalised packaging. In the automation game, it pays to leave plenty of wiggle room to accommodate your clients’ creative choices.

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/1288537/warehouse-automation-market-size-united-kingdom/?kw=&crmtag=adwords&gclid=CjwKCAjwx_eiBhBGEiwA15gLN4oMhbELRZQPKc9Y0Yk8Od6YdKaGIwUuBtdBMhwzCe6oqplxn9OQsRoCZiwQAvD_BwE

[2] https://www.statista.com/statistics/1288537/warehouse-automation-market-size-united-kingdom/

[3] https://www.asendia.com/asendia-insights/asendia-uk-automation-investment

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