Material handling robots: What are they and how do they work?

April 3, 2024
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What are material handling robots?

Material handling robots, also known as automated guided vehicles (AGVs), are robots designed to move materials and goods efficiently within a warehouse or factory. They use sensors and navigation systems to transport heavy loads with zero or near-zero human intervention.

How material handling robots work

Material handling robots are automated machines designed to move materials and goods efficiently in industrial settings. They rely on integrated technologies to navigate, pick up and place heavy loads with precision.

  • These robots use navigation systems with sensors, cameras, and lasers to map their environment and the locations of objects. A control system then guides the robot to pick up and move materials to the correct destination.

    Many material handling robots follow pre-programmed paths, while some use sensor technology to navigate dynamically on their own. 
  • Robotic arms, conveyors, and grippers allow these robots to lift, grab, and manipulate all types of materials and goods. Multi-axis arms can extend, twist, and bend to reach items and move them between locations.

    Grippers with adjustable pressure and claws securely grasp objects of various shapes and sizes.
  • Sophisticated software integrates the mechanical and control systems, allowing the robots to operate automatically. Programming tools are used to set paths, control speeds and forces, and specify the sequence of actions required to complete material handling tasks.

    The software is also able to communicate with warehouse management systems to optimize the flow of goods even further. 

Common types of material handling robots

Material handling robots come in many shapes and sizes for all sorts of different applications. 

Here are the most common types: 

Gantry robots

These are stationary robots that move materials around a fixed area. They typically work within a rectangular area and move materials on a horizontal plane. Gantry robots are often used for large payloads and precise, repetitive movements. 

They’re commonly seen in manufacturing facilities moving heavy materials or doing pick-and-place tasks.

SCARA robots

SCARA is a nice acronym for Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm. These bots have two parallel rotating joints to move horizontally in the “X” plane. They are fast, precise, and ideal for light assembly work, packaging, and sorting small parts. SCARA robots are compact and take up little floor space. 

Delta robots

Delta robots consist of three arms connected at the base that move simultaneously to pick up and maneuver payloads. They’re fast, flexible, and energy efficient. Delta robots are used for high-speed assembly, packaging, and sorting. They can handle light payloads at rates of up to 200 picks per minute. 

Delta robots require a very small footprint and are often mounted on ceilings or walls.

Cartesian coordinate robots

These robots have three linear axes of motion — one vertical, one horizontal, and one lateral. They move very precisely along these three axes. Cartesian robots are typically used for precise, repetitive pick and place work, assembly, and handling of heavy loads. They provide high precision but slower speeds than other robot types. 

They’re commonly found in factories and warehouses.

Other types

There are several other more specialized material handling robots like palletizers, depalletizers, pick and place robots, and autonomous mobile robots

Robotics technology is rapidly advancing, so new types of robots continue to emerge out of the woodwork. If anything, that trend is set to accelerate in the coming years. 

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Benefits of industrial material handling automation

There’s plenty to love about material handling robots.

Let’s take a look at the main benefits:

  • Major productivity gains. Robots can operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week without breaks, increasing throughput and reducing downtime. They also work at a fast, consistent pace, handling heavy loads with precision. This allows companies to scale operations rapidly without hiring additional staff.
  • An overall win for safety. Using robots for material transport and storage helps create a safer work environment for human employees. Robots can handle hazardous materials and work in dangerous areas like deep freezers. They can also perform highly repetitive tasks that often lead to injuries like musculoskeletal disorders in humans. 
  • Cost-cutting? Yes, please. Although the initial investment in automation may be high, material handling robots can lower costs in the long run (their ROI is just 1-3 years). They minimize the need for manual labor, reducing staffing requirements and wages. Robots also operate with a high degree of accuracy, limiting product damage and waste.

    They also require very little maintenance. 
  • You can redeploy them. Modern material handling robots are highly flexible and reprogrammable. As business needs change, robots can be reconfigured to handle different types of materials, learn new routes, and adapt to changes in the workspace layout.

    This allows companies to scale their operations up or down quickly in response to shifts in demand. 

Challenges faced by robotic material handling

While material handling robots tend to be a net win, they also come with some drawbacks. 

Let’s dig in a bit more: 

  • You’ll have to pay quite a bit of cash. Material handling robots can be expensive to implement, with costs ranging from $25,000 up to $100,000 or more for a single robot. The initial capital investment may be too high for some companies, especially smaller ones.

    Installing an entire automated material handling system will necessitate a major financial commitment. 
  • Safe? Yes. Foolproof? No. Working with heavy machinery and automated equipment always brings safety risks that must be addressed. Proper safety mechanisms need to be put in place to avoid potential accidents or injuries.

    Employees need to be properly trained to work with and around the robots. Additional safety barriers may also need to be installed. 
  • Job loss is a real concern. Some workers worry that robots may take over their jobs, especially in roles like warehouse picking and sorting. However, material handling robots are more likely to take over extremely boring, repetitive tasks, freeing up humans to focus on more complex, high-level work.

    Many companies are also retraining employees to work with the new technologies. 

    But, the issue of job displacement still looms large, and does not have a more concrete answer than “time will tell.” 
  • Not precisely plug-and-play. Integrating material handling robots into existing operations and infrastructure can be complicated. Modifications often need to be made to warehouse layouts, storage systems, and software platforms to properly accommodate the robots.

    This integration process requires time, money, and resources to implement successfully while minimizing disruption. 

Summing up

That’s our quick rundown of material handling robots. 

With their ability to automate repetitive and dangerous tasks safely and efficiently, it's no wonder businesses are eagerly adopting these bots to streamline their operations. 

But, as with everything, it’s going to be up to you: Thoroughly assess whether your workflow, shop floor, and budget can accommodate one of these beauties. 

If the answer is yes, then prepare to see your productivity shoot through the roof! 

Next steps 

Transform your operations with RO1, the automation solution that won't drain your budget.

  • Get more for your money: RO1 puts cutting-edge robotics within reach, delivering top-notch performance at a price that's up to half the cost of other options.
  • Powerhouse performance: RO1 handles heavy-duty tasks (up to 18 kg) with the speed and precision that puts competitors to shame.
  • Intelligence that grows with you: Powered by AI as advanced as GPT-4, the RO1 never stops learning. It's automation that effortlessly adapts to your changing needs.
  • Safety-first collaboration: RO1 is designed to work alongside your team safely, featuring advanced vision systems and sensors for worry-free human-robot interaction.

Schedule your free 30-day onsite trial! Our team will provide personalized support to ensure your robot implementation is a success.

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