By Sangeet Kumar
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?
Dark – the new light of the warehouse
Well, if you would notice in the last 14-15 years of its onset, the e-commerce industry has been a synonym for ‘explosive growth’ and there has been an exponential rise in terms of the number of SKUs they handle. Delivery time has changed significantly too; from being around 10 days to 24-hour delivery. Ecommerce has not only transformed how the businesses work but have changed the customer’s behaviour forever. The ‘want it now’ attitude of the customers is forcing businesses to upgrade their systems and processes to meet these expectations and they are assorting to automation by introducing autonomous Mobile robots, AGV for material transfer, driverless forklifts, palletising robots, Automated Storage And Retrieval System, automatic picking units through MPVs, cobots, Mobile robots, sorting robots, tilt-tray sorters, robotic packaging and depackaging units, powerful software such as Warehouse Management System, 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 conceptualise one such warehouse, yes, you are right there and welcome to the wonderful world of ‘dark warehousing’!
So, what are dark warehouses?
To define the nomenclature, a dark warehouse is a fully automated warehouse that operates without the use of human power. You can literally put off all the lights and let the warehouse function on its own. There is another definition to it too, which says that it is a warehouse that has fully Automated Material Handling Solution– here the main reference is to the automated storage and retrieval system, high speed sorting systems, mobile robots, and warehouse execution systems.
The e-commerce boom and the need for speed are the primary drivers for the dark warehousing concept as the complete automated systems increase the speed of operations by a manifold, ensure delivery of 100 per cent 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 utilisation and create additional space within the existing space, a few examples are dense racking through pallet shuttles or carton shuttles, crane based ASRS systems, etc.
How do dark warehouses work?
In the case of dark warehouses, all the functions of warehousing i.e., inbound, storage, picking, and outbound are completely automated and all these systems work in perfect sync with one another and with the other ancillary systems such as front end Order Management System, Vendor Management System, Truck Management System, Personnel management system, etc. 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 palletisation of the similar SKUs will be 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 depalletising 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 and 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.
What sets it apart?
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 organisations installed highly automated systems with some regular equipment like conveyors. With the kind of capital investments a dark warehouse requires, it is mostly possible for large organisations, 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 this, dark warehousing appears as the panacea to achieve the best KPIs in the industry. It has been quite elusive since a decade because in the ever-changing and volatile business world, investment in 100 per cent automation seems to be quite a bold move and companies have been apprehensive about it; maturity of the technology, staff skills, organised or unorganised 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 Warehouse and Intralogistics Automation is a booster and it is the right way to enhance the efficiency.
(Sangeet Kumar is Founder and CEO, Addverb)