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Chris Caldwell

Innovation

Shedding Light on the Path to Dark Warehouses

Significant breakthroughs are required, but fully automated facilities are in the future

Published: Wednesday, November 29, 2023 - 12:03

As the growth in fulfillment warehouses, e-commerce, and third-party logistics skyrockets, and unique customer demands evolve, more companies are exploring the concept of dark warehouses—fully automated, “lights-out” facilities that use intelligent, interconnected devices to operate without human labor. Due to labor availability, cost-benefit analysis, technological advancements, and other factors, the shift toward these facilities continues.

Dark warehouse drivers

Although the reasons for advanced technology integration, including robotic automation, will vary from one enterprise to another, there are multiple key concepts and innovations prompting the gradual move toward “darker” warehouses.

Refined robotic tools

More affordable, robust, and energy-efficient robots can now be easily integrated into a wider variety of operations for increased capacity. Intelligent peripherals—including sophisticated vision, sensor technology, and flexible end-of-arm tooling (EOAT)—all work together to facilitate fluid product flow with improved quality.

Traditionally ideal for highly repetitive tasks with structured preprogrammed jobs—where little environmental awareness is required—robots can now operate in unstructured settings where there is limited knowledge of object, size, shape, and orientation. From upstream processes to end-of-line operations, feature-rich hardware and software solutions are integral for optimal throughput for on-time delivery.

Enabling the shift toward fully autonomous warehouses and distribution centers, these technologies can effectively transition fixed-automation centers with task-specific machinery into flexible automation layouts.


Automated equipment might completely carry out part processing during a night shift, allowing experienced workers to provide finishing product touches during the day.

Once a novelty, packaging robots for pick and place, packing, palletizing and depalletizing, and sorting are now a staple for maintaining production workflow. Especially true for e-commerce, food and beverage, and pharmaceutical sectors, the adoption of high-performance, flexible handling robots with intelligent peripherals is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10% by 2032.1 As a result, pure fulfillment warehousing—where daily activities can be complete with little-to-no human interaction—continues to permeate the industrial landscape.

Improved workplace conditions

It’s no secret that many manufacturing and warehousing tasks are extremely repetitive and can cause worker injury. Associated with worker burnout and low employee morale, monotonous manual jobs that are subject to high turnover are ideal for flexible and capable robotic automation. In turn, this use can free skilled workers to focus on other value-added tasks and custom orders for greater productivity and profitability.

Where labor scarcity is concerned, the tasks that can be automated for self-sustaining operations—whether it be manufacturing, distribution, or assembly—can radically reduce the requirement for human workers. Realistically, with careful planning, spending, integration, and management, companies may be able to operate as a dark warehouse for several shifts, consolidating the most difficult work in a single shift or single day per week.

Enhanced smart technology

As mentioned, a growing number of advanced technologies, such as vision-guided robotics (VGR), are making it easier to configure, program, and integrate robotic solutions, especially for structured, high-volume tasks. Well-suited for dynamic factory or distribution settings, adaptable autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) also enable flexible and efficient operations. The robotic platforms, equipped with robots, vision systems, and custom EOAT, safely maneuver with ease throughout a facility to perform assigned tasks. Ideal for picking, sorting, and on-demand material transport, AMRs are becoming an essential piece of the dark warehouse puzzle. With an anticipated CAGR of 20% by 2029, these impressive machines will continue to drive lights-out production.2

Similarly, digital-twin technology is also making strides to improve workflow management and alleviate operational challenges in production environments. An accurate 3D model of a robotics operation that is imposed on the virtual world for testing and enhancement before being implemented in an existing line or work cell, a robotic digital twin helps make predictions about future outcomes for the utmost accuracy, safety, and efficiency for a specific task. Whether using computer simulation, preprogrammed algorithms, or iterative machine learning, the data gained using digital-twin technology can preemptively assist with positioning accuracy, throughput quotas, and other perplexing or demanding conditions.

As robotic automation is optimized to better align with digital-twin technology and other advancements, significant improvements for artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning software, and offline programming are also being made. Ideal for robot dexterity and speed in acquiring and recognizing objects, intelligent machine hardware (such as VGR, force and torque sensors, LiDAR, and microlocation devices) combined with AI can address the simulation-to-reality (Sim2Real) gap. Instructional data resembling real environments can be generated via simulation and used to effectively train a robot. As a result, production applications and new workflows are being validated without physical disruption to facility floor plans, which can boost performance for a competitive edge.

Optimized cost savings

Along with improved operations and accelerated throughput (or order fulfillment for on-time delivery), many organizations are experiencing tangible cost savings. The ability to simultaneously operate lean yet productive facilities while maximizing the human worker skill sets needed is a financial win-win—not only for business owners but customers as well. Once initial payback is reached by the end user, robotic systems and fully automated facilities have the potential to provide considerable return on investment, even with regularly scheduled maintenance.

While it’s true the price of full automation can require substantial upfront capital expenditure, the long-term benefits are clear, making dark facilities with full or near-full automation an extremely attractive option for certain industries.

Data-driven management planning

As high-performance robots and their intelligent peripherals, including smart sensors and devices, are integrated into current operations, decision makers leaning toward dark warehouses should monitor where throughput and quality are lagging, and also track excess waste. Whether through a labor-management system or feature-rich monitoring platform, the ability to accumulate real-time data to track operations is critical to deciding how to move forward.

Extremely effective, OPC-UA platforms such as Yaskawa Cockpit facilitate an integrated, intelligent, and innovative (i3-Mechatronics) approach to data collection and enterprise monitoring, allowing company leaders to customize operations to better fulfill organizational goals. Furthermore, the information gained will shed light on internal bottlenecks and other limitations, providing valuable feedback for what may be needed in the future to go completely dark.

Although significant breakthroughs are still required to complete a substantial shift to widespread, fully automated facilities, the future demand for them seems strong. Subsequently, more aggressive R&D focused on AI, the internet of things, and logistics management is being directed toward this need. The more complex the task, the slower the transition will be. However, careful planning and the addition of robots and other smart technologies may allow companies to operate during dark modes—during which qualifying tasks are consolidated and automated during a specific time. For example, automated equipment may completely carry out part processing during a night shift, allowing experienced workers to provide finishing touches to the product during the day.

Currently, select facilities—especially for e-commerce and cold warehouses for food and beverage production—may have the ability to operate with little human interaction. As advances in AI and machine-learning algorithms continue, more solutions with proprietary perception tools using AI-driven data from simulation settings will enable robots to complete more complex applications. This, along with adequate planning, monitoring, and restructuring of operations during the next decade, will bring manufacturers closer to a “darker,” more productive future.

1. Graphical Research. “Packaging Robot Market to Exceed $10 Bn by 2032.” GlobeNewswire, 2023.
2. Orion Market Research. “Mobile Robotics Market 2023 Driving Factors Forecast Research 2029.” OpenPR, 2023.

Published Oct. 24, 2023, on the Yaskawa Motoman blog.

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About The Author

Chris Caldwell’s picture

Chris Caldwell

Chris Caldwell is product manager of material handling at Yaskawa America Inc./Motoman Robotics Division (Yaskawa Motoman), where he is responsible for product planning and execution throughout the product life cycle. This includes gathering and prioritizing product and customer requirements, defining the product vision, and working to ensure customer goals are met. With over 15 years of experience in manufacturing and operations, he has worked in every corner of organizations to provide exceptional products and services while optimizing costs, maintaining reliability, and ensuring quality. Caldwell holds a bachelor’s degree in business management from Wright State University.