Social Distancing Decisions Impacting Robotics Choices

The need for social distancing inside warehouses and distribution centers to prevent COVID-19 exposure is expected to persist until after widespread vaccination. Robotics can help. Using robotic systems for heavy or repetitive manual labor, especially in small enclosed spaces, means workers are farther apart and fewer workers are needed in these tight spaces, said Volker Schmitz, Ph.D., president and CEO of MHI member Schmalz Inc. “This allows people in those enclosed spaces to spread out.”

Collaborative mobile robots have similar social distancing benefits. “Base-level social distancing can be achieved by automating long walks between induct, active picking and takeoff areas, reducing crowding on the warehouse floor,” said Fergal Glynn, vice president of marketing at MHI member 6 River Systems, Inc. By restricting aisle traffic and setting static zoning rules, operators can ensure workers remain within their own zones while collaborative mobile robots move from one to another.

The most highly automated picking method is a goods-to-person (GTP) system. These systems employ mobile robots that move inventory to where the stationary human picker is located, explained AK Schultz, co-founder and CEO of MHI member SVT Robotics. “The places where robots bring products are separated from other people, so workers are naturally socially distanced and don’t need to walk past other workers,” he said. Items are less likely to have been handled by multiple people, also reducing risk.

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