Robotic solutions in warehouses
Heightened demand for warehouses and the uptake of robotic solutions has facilities managers looking to improve efficiency without increasing fire risk. LYNDON BROAD reports.
Commercial property owners have plenty of reasons to be optimistic this year. Demand for warehousing is growing at an impressive clip, driving commercial property rental prices up to record levels. Land values across western Sydney have lifted by about 50 percent during the past 12 months.
So, what’s driving this demand? General population growth is one factor. The rise of e-commerce, given further impetus by the recent arrival of e-commerce giant Amazon, is another. Nielsen research shows a 23.8 percent increase in online sales during 2017, with a further 403,000 Australian households adopting online shopping. Groceries accounted for a large part of this, with the number of families buying some or all of their household groceries online increasing by 22.9 percent.
These trends are expected to accelerate following the arrival of Amazon, which is forecast to boost Australian online retail turnover by up to 14 percent per year, according to Citibank estimates.
And it’s not just the number of warehouses that’s on the rise. The average size of these facilities is also expected to grow rapidly. This year, the average new industrial warehouse in Australia will come in at about 200,000 square metres. To put this in perspective, that’s big enough to store 10 Melbourne Cricket Grounds. Before 2011, only one of Amazon’s 10 distribution centres in Europe was larger than 90,000 square metres.
All of this adds up. Australia’s warehousing and logistics industries will be worth $187 billion by 2021, according to a recent study from market research firm Ken Research.
THE ROBOTIC WORKFORCE
This drive for scale and efficiency in response to rising demand has led to rapid growth in automation. While workers in many industries wait nervously to see if their roles will be automated, it’s already happening in warehouses across Australia and Amazon is credited with popularising autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). It bought AMR maker, Kiva, in 2012, lapping up its production and renaming the company Amazon Robotics.
These autonomous helpers on wheels can select and carry a box, or an entire shelving unit full of boxes, from the warehouse floor to a human ‘picker’ who moves it to the next stage of the process. According to a feature published on the Quartz digital technology news website, Amazon added 75,000 robots to its workforce in 2017.
By replacing human labour, robots can reduce the ‘per pick’ cost of moving packages by almost 90 percent, to as little as 10 cents each time a robot travels to a pack station. The laws of scale make it highly likely this number will continue to fall.
The other advantage of robots is that they have no preference about where they live. Unlike most people, they’ll happily get down to work in mega-warehouses situated further and further out from the major metro areas.
NEW RISK PROFILE
With all of this evolution comes extra reason for concern, and not just because of its impact on employment levels. Although automation minimises the risk of human error, the scale and speed of what’s going on inside a modern warehouse has altered the risk profile.
Fire is the biggest risk when dramatically increasing the presence of electrically powered devices. They all have the potential to malfunction at any time. But it’s not just the robots. The push to store ever more packages and get them to their destinations sooner has also seen a trend towards boxes being piled higher and packed more densely into warehouses.
Automated warehouses are also more likely to use fast- burning open-top plastic containers rather than traditional closed-top cardboard or wood containers. These open-top containers have the added drawback of preventing water that’s being used to fight any fires from cascading to lower portions of the warehouse.
Asever,warehousemanagersarefacedwithaneedtobalance theirobligationtoprofitabilityandriskmanagementina reasonable way. While acting responsibly to address the fire risks that automated warehouse environments bring with them, they don’t want to limit their facility’s storage potential or increase costs with inappropriate fire-reduction strategies.
RETHINKING FIRE PROTECTION
The suitability of current protection strategies, including traditional ceiling-mounted sprinkler systems, must be revisited in today’s automated warehouse environment.
FM Global data shows it’s clearly worth the time and effort. The difference between an adequate sprinkler system and an inadequate one – either non-existent or with insufficient sprinkler coverage – is massive. We found over a 10-year period the cost difference is as much as fivefold, with average losses rising to US$4.56 million.
FM Global has developed robotic warehouse fire protection guidelines. Based on five years of research and a multimillion-dollar investment, these guidelines are intended to help risk managers and warehouse managers minimise the fire risk associated with automatic storage and retrieval systems (ASRS).
In designing the ‘Protection for Automatic Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS)’ data sheet, we’ve discovered that it’s possible to:
- optimise fire protection through careful storage design choices
- reduce the cost of fire protection systems including piping, pumps and water tanks
- support sustainability through the use of less water, and
- perhaps most importantly of all, base your fire protection strategies in evidence, not guesswork.
The guidelines cover provisions for sprinkler arrangement, independence of in-rack and ceiling sprinkler systems, container design and racking structure. They replace a 2007 version, which included stipulations that were starting to clash with modern storage trends.
Not all of the suggestions are complex. Simple steps such as having reasonable gaps between boxes can make it much easier and less costly to protect a facility from massive fire damage by reducing the ability for a fire to spread horizontally.
FM Global has invested heavily in the development of these guidelines because it’s the sort of issue where our clients expect us to take a leadership position. We’re committed to helping them protect their businesses as the industry continues to strive for greater efficiency.
Lyndon Broad is country manager, FM Global Australia.
This article also appears in the June/July issue of Facility Management magazine.
Image: 123RF’s Igor Zakharevich © 123RF.com