From sorters to conveyors & robot based systems, here’s the top tech warehouses are investing in

India’s warehousing industry has travelled a long distance from “godowns” to modern storage facilities called Grade A warehouses.
Warehouse automation is a gradual process. India started off late, but that may actually help it bypass some of the mid-age technologies and adopt the latest ones. While several players are still warming up to automation, which are the technologies gaining popularity in India?

Automation is the key to transform warehouses from merely being storage spaces to smart and efficient distribution hubs. India’s Grade A warehouses have a lot of ground to cover in adopting the latest technologies compared to the advanced robotics and automation used in the US, Europe, Japan, and China. However, in the last few years, companies have started realising the benefits of automation, as the return on investment is compelling.

“From taking baby steps, we have just stood up on our feet, because there has been a shift in mindset, considering the benefits these technologies can bring,” says Naman Jain, CEO, Falcon Autotech, a prominent intra-logistics automation­ solutions company. What are the factors driving this shift and which are the most widely prevalent technologies and automation systems Indian warehouses are adopting?

Gradual but steady progress

India’s warehousing industry has travelled a long distance from “godowns” to modern storage facilities called Grade A warehouses, which comply with international-grade specifications and facilities.
The appetite for Grade A warehouses is increasing. A recent report by real-estate body Credai and property consultants Anarock points out that India’s warehousing market was valued at INRl,050 billion in 2020 and it is expected to reach INR2,243 billion in 2026. India is likely to see demand for 223 million square feet of Grade A warehousing over the next three years. For this fast-growing industry, gradual and steady strides towards automation is an imperative.

In India, there are three grades of warehouses when it comes to automation. There are ones that are highly automated and have adopted an advanced level of automation in multiple operations – inbound, storage, picking, dispatch, etc.
There are very few of those. The second category of warehouses are those that have adopted island automation, which means they have picked up only one operation and automated it. So, for example, a warehouse will have only inbound automation or outbound automation. Again, there are only a small number of such warehouses.
Then, there are warehouses that have no automation and are completely manual. This category comprises the biggest number of warehouses in India. In markets such as the US or China, the first two categories comprise a much larger number compared to India. Manual warehouses are much fewer there than in India.

There are three structural drivers that are making warehouse operations increasingly challenging for any company. One, real estate is getting more expensive by the day. So, companies can no longer afford to build huge warehouses at the price points they were able to do 10 years ago. Two, since these large warehouses are being set up outside major cities in remote areas, availability of skilled manpower is a big challenge. Three, customer expectations on faster delivery is increasing, putting an upward pressure on the efficiency of warehouse operations.

Moreover, running manual operations amid high real-estate costs, lowers space efficiency. Since the vertical height of warehouses needs to be optimally utilised, robots are needed to climb the racks. Warehousing operations are highly labour intensive, but amid the lack of skilled labour, reducing dependence on people to run operations has become a priority. Besides, machines work at a much faster speed than humans. Therefore, automation is the way to go if customer expectations are to be fulfilled.

The solutions that companies are adopting include sortation systemsconveyorsand dimension- and weight-measurement systems. Early adopters are also going for the benefits offered by advanced robotic systems like ASRS (automatic storage and retrieval systems).

It is only in the last four to five years that companies have started taking big bets on automation. Initially, they had been sceptical for two reasons. One, they were not sure about the outcome of investing millions of dollars. Second, from investment to outcome was a long cycle.

A company looking to automate a warehouse, would start with evaluating the need, documenting it, and studying the market, suppliers etc. Thereafter, tenders would be floated to finalise the vendors. Vendors would need time to manufacture the system, install it, and hand it over. So, it would take two to three years for a company’s automation journey to bear fruit.

What is warehouse automation all about?

Globally, as well as in India, there are two types of warehouses: fulfilment centres and sortation centres. Fulfilment centres hold inventory and ship products according to customers’ orders, and broadly carry out five operations:

  • Receiving goods
  • Storing goods
  • Picking up goods
  • Packing goods
  • Dispatching goods

Once a product leaves a fulfilment centre, it becomes a shipment. That’s when sortation centres come in. Broadly three processes are carried out there:

  • Receiving shipments
  • Processing or sorting shipments
  • Dispatching shipments

Processes where automation is picking up

In fulfilment centres, companies are investing quite heavily in automating receiving of goods, storage, picking up of goods, and dispatch. Automation in packing of goods is still low in India.

The technology being adopted most in India’s sortation centres comprises automatic sorters. Sortation has typically been a highly complex, manpower­ intensive job. But now, sorting machines can do it at lightning-fast speeds. For example, a small sorter can sort up to 3,000 parcels an hour, while large sorters or high-speed sorters can handle up to 80,000 parcels every hour. Manually, a human can sort about 100 parcels every hour. So, sorting 80,000 parcels every hour would need a team of 800 people.

How do sorting machines work?

These are highly complex machines. When a parcel is placed on a conveyor, the system automatically captures the barcode and the dimension and weight. From the barcode, it fetches the destination of the shipment automatically captures the image of the parcel. The parcel then travels and drops into a bag designed for that city. A bag containing parcels for a common destination will move on a complex network of conveyors and automatically sorted for the truck going to a particular city.

“Adoption of automatic sorters is high, with a lot of implementations in the last four to five years,” says Jain of Falcon Autotech, which has deployed hundreds of sorters.

Installation of automatic sorters enables companies to process 3x the number of shipments per square foot, minimising the real-estate cost. Furthermore, such sorting, being software driven, can be configured to sort parcels according to PIN codes, cities, or countries.

Automating goods movement with smart conveyors

The other process in which companies in India are investing big is automatic goods movement. In large warehouses, thousands of products have to be moved within the facility. Earlier, this was done manually-say, putting 20 boxes on a pallet, taking it from point A to point B, then unloading them back on to a station. Now, this is being automated using “smart conveyors” – think of them as roads with boxes and products moving on them. On reaching the destination of a particular box, it will take a left or a right turn and move into a different road and land at the “logical” station.

“From taking baby steps, we have just stood up on our feet, because there has been a shift in mindset, considering the benefits these technologies can bring.”
– Naman Jain, CEO, Falcon Autotech

What can be a logical destination in the warehouse? Let’s say there is a big fashion warehouse, which has storage across four levels – the bottom for men’s apparel; the second for women’s apparel; the third for kids wear; and the fourth for accessories. Thousands of boxes for these categories are taken via conveyors to the designated level, with a label containing a barcode number or an RFID tag on each box guiding its movement.

Machines to gauge dimensions and weight

Dimension- and weight-measurement machines have vision and laser systems that automatically capture the length, breadth, height, volume, weight, image, and barcode number of a parcel and store them in a database. This data helps in making several decisions during subsequent processes in a warehouse.

Think of an e-commerce warehouse storing thousands of products of different sizes, weight, and dimensions. How can the right packet size be decided to pack the products? Suppose a customer places an order for a pair of shoes. Using the data on the dimensions of the shoe box, the system can automatically decide which packing box is to be used.

Similarly, say, a company needs to ship out 10,000 parcels from Delhi to Bengaluru in a truck. Using the machines, one can decide which parcels and how many can go inside the truck to optimally utilise the vehicle’s space and weight capacity.

The next frontier: automatic storage and retrieval systems

ASRS, short for automated storage and retrieval system, involve robots that can store a product in a warehouse and retrieve it when necessary. “This is the next wave we are anticipating that will take Indian warehouses by a storm and we are getting ourselves ready for it,” says Jain.

ASRS helps in increasing worker productivity, reduce errors, and optimally utilise the vertical height of a building. Imagine a multi-tiered e-commerce warehouse. Each floor is lined up with shelves, where products are stored. In a manual set-up, once an order is received, somebody will have to walk up to a particular shelf, pick the product from the rack, and move it to the packing area. Typically, 75% of the person’s time is taken up by walking and only 25% in doing storage or picking – a big inefficiency. Using ASRS robots, instead, the product would be brought to the person. As a result productivity can go up multi-fold.

Late, yet latest

Warehousing-automation experts say India is late to the party, but this may actually help it bypass some of the mid-age technologies and adopt the latest ones. A classic example is ASRS machines, which have globally become the most prevalent use case of robotics in warehouses.

The first generation of ASRS systems launched around the 1990s were crane-based, with fixed cranes going inside storage systems and fetching out products. These had limited capabilities. In the early to mid-2000s, ASRS shuttles were introduced, which would place and retrieve a product via a shuttle running on a track between racking structures. Midway into the 2010s, robotics systems were launched.

“What we are seeing is that India is leapfrogging from older generations of ASRS machines, as customers are evaluating and implementing robot-based ASRS,” says Jain of Falcon Autotech.


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Media Contact:
Abhishek Sahu
Marketing Manager

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