World’s smartest buildings: Alibaba warehouse, China

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Alice Cruickshank

With advancements in robotics, many large companies are considering moving to an automated workforce to man their warehouses. Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba has done just that.

Alibaba’s Tmall division opened its first smart warehouse in 2017 in the Huiyang district of China, with an army of compact yet strong automated guided vehicles (AGVs) to move goods and prepare orders.

Here’s how the e-commerce giant is embracing the latest in robotics technology.

Quicktron Alibaba Warehouse

The AGVs move customers’ orders around the warehouse. Image: Quicktron

Why use a robotic warehouse?

According to eMarketer, e-commerce sales in China are expected to reach $1.132tn in 2017, accounting for nearly half of global online retail. China is also the world’s largest robotics marketplace. Marrying e-commerce and the latest in AGV technology makes sense, as demand grows and efficiency targets increase.

Traditional logistics warehouses are very labour-intensive operations, with manual loading, scheduling and monitoring. Through its smart warehouse, Alibaba has digitised the process using IoT applications, big data, edge computing and artificial intelligence.

Over 60 robots man the floor of Alibaba’s 32,000 sq ft warehouse. Instead of a packing clerk walking an average of 27,924 steps around the warehouse daily – which was the case before the robots – it is now only 2,563. Alibaba claims the warehouse’s overall efficiency has increased threefold thanks to the AGVs.

Quicktron Robots

Despite their size, the AGVs can carry over 500kg each. Image: Quicktron

How do the robots work?

The robots are made by Chinese company Quicktron. Despite being only slightly larger than ordinary robot vacuum cleaners, the AGVs can travel 5 feet per second and carry up to 500 kg. The robots can rotate 360 degrees for easy access to shelves and can sense each other to avoid collision. The Quicktron robots are very efficient, and automatically source a charger when battery is running low.

The AGVs receive instructions via Wi-Fi and are responsible for moving goods in the warehouse. Activated once a shopper places an order on Alibaba’s Tmall site, the robot then sends the shelf containing the parcel to a warehouse clerk, who will sort through the parcels and later ship the order to the customer. Once a task is complete the robots return to await their next order.

Robotics – the future of logistics?

In short, yes. Alibaba’s model is an outstanding case study of increased efficiency using AGVs. It is clearly working for the company – overall, Alibaba has committed $15bn by 2022 to expand its global logistics network, with the smart warehouse model to the fore.

What is encouraging about the Tmall warehouse robotics strategy is that it has not eradicated human employment entirely. Instead, the AGVs are used to make clerks’ jobs easier and less exhausting.

While neither Alibaba nor Quicktron have revealed the price of their AGVs, the similar Locusbot designed for e-commerce warehouses costs up to $35,000. Robots are not a cheap option, but with the growth of online shopping we can be sure to see a lot more of these machines being adopted globally.

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