Is Your Fleet Prepared for Autonomous Warehouses?


Imagine a bustling, fully functioning warehouse. Goods move from one area to the next, smoothly and without a missed step. Cargo is being loaded and unloaded from trailers — and the entire operation is fully and completely staffed by robots.

Autonomous warehouses might sound impossibly futuristic, but in a few warehouses, this system is already being incorporated. According to Harvard Business School’s article “C&S Wholesale Grocers: Autonomous Vehicles… For Your Apples?”, C&S Wholesale Grocers, based in New Hampshire, has already outfitted its network of distribution centers with autonomous robots using an in-house warehouse autonomation technology company called Symbotic.

The Symbotic system features 28-inch-wide robots capable of traveling untethered at speeds up to 25 MPH to stack, store, and retrieve cases of goods. The robots’ software instructs them on how to arrange cases in a specific order to assemble “perfect pallets” which are wrapped, loaded onto trucks, and shipped out.

Human and Robot Employee Collaboration

As C&S continues to install robots in its own centers, it is also selling its technology to external customers. Symbotic technology has already caught the attention of Coca-Cola, Walmart, and Target. Using this system, C&S says it cut labor costs by 80% and requires only 30% of the human jobs as before.

“The term that has risen across industries for the ‘working together of humans and robots’ is ‘cobot’,” says Daniel Bentz, executive director, strategy at Great Dane. “This is the concept of humans basically being coworkers with a team of robots – in some cases with true hard work, in other cases more like a Boy Scout leader. This will require different skillsets from an employee and, most importantly, a different set of communication realities and process design within the ecosystem of building, trailer, people and machinery.”

The Road to Fully Autonomous Warehouses

Much in the same way that Level 2 automated driving systems work in today’s trucks, robots can’t yet be expected to handle everything in these warehouses. The next step is full automation – but it will take some time before we get there.

Last year, Scott Anderson, director of robotics fulfillment at Amazon, told Reuters that a fully end-to-end automated Amazon warehouse is at least ten years away. A good deal of progress still needs to be made in the field of robotics in order to develop robots that can handle all of the tasks necessary for warehouse work.

But with the rapid advancements in technology, ten years isn’t that far off. The complex details surrounding automated or completely autonomous warehouses need to be carefully considered. Accepting trailer loads, opening trailer or warehouse doors, unloading the trailer—someday, all of this might be done by robots.

This all just goes to show that fleets and trailer manufacturers that want to have an advantage in ten years are those that consider autonomy now.

Required Technology for Full Autonomy

A big part of a successful autonomous warehouse environment will be trailer telematics. WiFi, Bluetooth, and cloud sharing are some of the ways data is being shared currently, though the data is typically sent to a dispatcher or fleet manager. It’s easy to imagine that in the future, telematics software will be able to connect equipment to warehouses—identifying loads, managing schedules, and even running the entire loading process automatically. Fleets that incorporate telematics now will be that much better prepared for when warehouses do switch to autonomous solutions.

“If a building in a warehouse is ‘smart,’ they’ll also want the vehicle doing deliveries to be ‘smart,’” says Chris Hoyt, FleetPulse product manager at Great Dane. “You’ll want to avoid breakdowns in the chain; you want to know if it’s full, if it’s broken down, etc. You can think of the trailers as mini-warehouses on wheels; they’re part of that whole autonomous, smart system.”

Beyond coordinating with warehouses, customers also need to be considered. The more customers adopt autonomy and other technologies, the more they’ll expect the fleet to meet them where they’re going.

“The future of this is what we could call a ‘seamless transparent ecosystem,’ where one can see where a product or service is at any moment, be it in production, in delivery, in usage or in storage,” Bentz says. “This may start at the producer or fleet manager level, but is just as applicable to the buyer, be it consumer or commercial.”

Telematics can be used to strengthen your collaboration with warehouses and shippers. Working with trusted partners to exchange data can benefit you both, making your data analysis and approach to logistics that much more efficient.
It’s clear that preparing for autonomous warehouses today can only benefit a fleet. Regardless of how soon it happens, your fleet will be able to take advantage of current telematics systems to increase efficiency, improve coordination with partners, and strengthen overall performance.

Learn more about Great Dane’s telematics solution: FleetPulse.