Automation in 3PL

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Automation in 3PL

The conventional wisdom that automation is not the first thing that you think of in third party logistics, is changing rapidly. The belief that customers do not give long term contracts, long enough to recover the investment, is not changing, but the way that 3PL companies charge for the service, and the spectrum of application, and re-application, with flexibility of design, is changing, believes Lionel Stanton.

Lionel Stanton

A recent McKinsey report predicts that 57% of functions in warehousing will eventually become automated. Robots have expanded their repertoire of capabilities and are becoming cheaper and more standardized. Integrated with 3D vision and vacuum grippers they are capable of picking, placing and automatically packing, sealing, printing labels and applying to the parcel.

Picking and packing are the two most expensive operations in the warehouse. At the same time, the high-speed growth of Internet shopping has led to customer demanding less than 24-hour turnarounds. Couple this with the roll out of 5G, this will increase the speed of mobile Internet, and a surge in e-commerce demand. These developments and the flexibility of robotic solutions will double process speeds with lower costs, reduced errors, and doubling of order processing efficiency. Equally, collaborative robots (cobots) also give small distribution centres with low demand, the ability to manage shifting demand peaks and troughs.


A recent survey of UK, Europe and North America shows some interesting, if not surprising results. The main reason for investing in robotics is to increase efficiency, and to provide a cost-effective solution. Around 4 out of 5 people believe that robotics will become mainstream in the next 2 to 5 years.

Logistics and supply chain is an industry that will benefit the most from robotics, followed by FMCG, automotive, transport and pharmaceuticals. Manufacturing is seen as already using the most robotics, especially automotive. In all surveys, Picking and Packing came out as the top application, followed by sortation, loading/unloading, warehouse vehicles (AGVs), and inventory management, as areas of application, ranked in that order.

AI is used by only a few and there are no immediate plans for application. It may be considered in the future in the areas of inventory management, warehouse vehicles, procurement, transportation, customer service, picking and packing being top of the list again. In terms of future trends, robotic pickers and packers is number one, followed by innovations in autonomous delivery vehicles. The third most highly rated trend was robotics combined with artificial intelligence. Autonomous or driverless vehicles are already beginning to appear on our roads in trials. Although it is difficult to see how this could work in the Indian city environment, with current infrastructure, and traffic conditions.

Robotic drones did not appear to be of any great interest, along with truck platooning. Truck platooning is being trialed by DHL, TESCO, Sainsbury, on the UK motorways. This involves a convoy of trucks with the lead truck driving the convoy. The lead driver controls the convoy with the other trucks very close behind. The convoy is controlled through RF - accelerating, braking, steering is automated from the front truck. The purpose is slip-streaming to save fuel. There are, of course, severe safety concerns, and there are practical issues of running a train on busy road networks.


It has been said that robots could transform 3rd Party Logistics. The high cost of automation has always been a bit of a problem for 3PLs, which need an ROI within the life of a contract. Robotics could be changing that. All of a sudden, technologies are becoming available that can give competitive advantage as well as flexibility to be re-usable. ROI periods start to become a lot more realistic. One of the most popular applications of new technology is the use of very flexible ‘cobots’ or collaborative robots. These machines work with and alongside humans, doing repetitive movement tasks, leaving the human to do the intricate tasks, without having to move around. They have a range of grasping mechanisms, from vacuum heads to finger grips. They can assist workers in picking, packing and sorting applications, making the human more productive. Cobots can carry out tasks quickly and accurately and are easy to re-programme using AI in conjunction with demonstrating the task.

Robotic arms are light and flexible enough to be moved around and applied in many tasks. Robots can also be rolled out to help with peak times, reducing the number of temporary workers. This could be a boon for 3PLs in India. Other technologies under consideration are vehicle bay doors with built-in sensors, autonomous vehicles, and automated cleaning robots. Exo-skeletal suits for workers is another innovation. A bit like “Iron Man” without the rocket suit, but a strap on skeleton. This allows the worker to move freely, but the external skeleton provides the muscle to enable him to lift heavy loads easily. Eg white goods, engines, etc.

BITO Storage Systems advocate their BITO Leo internal driverless transporter, which is low cost and does not require wi-fi or IT. It can carry totes, for instance, between picking locations, from picking to packing, from packing to dispatch. Cobots can pick from a tote and pack in cartons or boxes, passing to a closing and sealing machine with automatic print and apply.

Dematic Robotics, Knapp, PSB, Vanderlande, Shaefer, Beumer, all have AGV systems, conveyor systems, sorting machines, shuttle systems and automated picking machines. Kiva system or Falcon Automation’s Butler system bring a rack of SKUs to a fixed picking station. These are ideal for high number of slow- moving SKUs, goods to the picker, like e-commerce or automotive spares. All high-speed picking systems bring goods to man, reducing lost time in walking. Cobots can work alongside the pickers. Cobots can feed induction lines to sorters and they can pack as well.

In India, think about how many picking assistants and “spiders” are used in warehouses. Cobots and autonomous vehicles could replace the picking assistants and spidermen in our operations.

Toshiba is developing wearable technology and has launched its dynaEdge Assisted Reality Smart Glasses to improve picking accuracy and efficiency using “hands Free” technology with voice controls. Workers can use smart glasses to pick by vision to scan bar codes and use voice confirmation to run through check lists. The German company Picavi also has smart glasses to guide the picker through the process.

In solutions design, we need to keep up to date on the technologies available, and their applications. We have an opportunity to get ahead of the curve in 3PL in India. These robotic technologies can be retro fitted to existing operations.


FURNITURE AND HEAVY BULKY: The picking is a 2-man operation but supposing…. The picker has smart glasses, aided by voice, plus a picking cobot assistant on an autonomous vehicle following alongside, then taking the order to dispatch. The whole process would require only one man, while additionally saving the BOPT driver. This is highly accurate and overcomes the issue of the serial number matching for Jaipur furniture. Much of the criss-cross movement on the inbound/outbound dock could be carried out autonomously, with assistance to load and unload.

LUGGAGE: Vehicle unloading, and loading is a problem to get the first row of cartons out, stacked to the roof of the truck. A cobot arm could swing out from the side of the door, with a suction pad to pick out the cartons safely from the top of the container. It could then place the carton onto a pallet directly for an autonomous vehicle to take the pallet to de-nesting or put away. The same can happen in reverse for loading outbound. This could be simpler and cleaner than conveyors. De-nesting could be entirely automated with cobots, picking can be done with smart glasses, and spider men can be replaced completely with autonomous vehicles for put away and from picking to outbound gate.

GARMENTS: There is a requirement to fold and pack singles into trade packs, and trade packs into master packs. Cobots could assist the packer to fold the garments, then automatically pack. Volumes might require something faster to pack, in which case we need to look at automatic carton machines. Inbound and outbound can be automated with boom conveyors coupled to shuttle systems and high-speed picking machines, assisted by cobots.

FOOTWEAR: Smart glasses and autonomous vehicles, BOPTs and HPT movement can be replaced faster, saving in manpower, and resulting in greater efficiency.

PHARMA: The application entirely depends on volumes and unit of pick. Automated “A:” frame picking machines are conventional technology, Knapp is expert on automation in this industry and on robotics.

AUTOMOTIVE: The most labor-intensive process is the UC repacking for branded items. Put to light is to be deployed, but cobots could be a game changer to assist the packers. Something similar could be deployed for reverse logistics inbound re-packing. Autonomous vehicles are an obvious application along with smart glasses.

A note of caution… automation is not necessary for everything, but items like smart glasses with voice can be universal. Cobots can be deployed even for simple tasks if it makes the worker more efficient, especially to overcome peaks. The beauty of these new technologies is that they are transferrable and re-usable.

Robotics is a big subject. XPO Logistics Europe has identified 19 innovations for consideration. There are at least the same number of vendors for different technologies.


  1. The main global 3PLs are already deploying robotics
  2. Robotics has already arrived in India, with a service support organization. It is essential for the warehouse to have a good WMS to drive automation and robotics. This is in terms of functionality, capacity, and the necessary drivers. Whilst we can treat the automation control system a bit like a black box, the necessary drivers and interfaces are required. For instance, when we use RF hand-held laser scanners, the WMS has a driver. Also, the WMS needs enough capacity to handle the number of devices in use at one time i.e., the peak time, without a reduction in service, or a slowdown in response time.

This is a major point for the choice of WMS, you need to ask a set of questions to test their capability.

  • Can the WMS track every movement in the warehouse, and can it allow extra pallet movements to be added, without losing any information on that pallet? (some WMS will lose the pallet ID when it is placed into a location. You then have to scan every carton back onto the pallet to move it again).
  • Does the WMS have drivers to interface with robotics, autonomous devices and automated processes?
  • Does it have the required bandwidth and capacity for growth in throughput?

Robotics can offer competitive advantage over their competition to the customer by using these systems and processes. Additionally, it offers advantages like faster speed to market, reduced work in progress and reduced stock, lower costs especially at peak times because we are less labor dependent, better service levels and accuracy. Cobots and autonomous vehicles can speed up and synchronize processes, like inbound and outbound, where traditional staging areas can be eliminated by allowing ‘one-piece flow’ lean productivity processes to be effectively controlled.

Space is the biggest single cost in the warehouse. Most small and medium product warehouses utilize multiple floor mezzanine shelving, fed with reach trucks and pallet gates, with staging areas. Automated pallet lifts linked to the AGVs can eliminate the need for reach trucks and drivers.


There are 3 ways a company can adopt new technologies;

  1. Follow others, but this means always being behind
  2. Adopt cutting edge technology, getting ahead but running risks of poor reliability
  3. Use proven technology, but in unique or advanced applications.

The 3rd way gives competitive edge, without taking all the risk on reliability. The products now available in the market is mainly proven technology.

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