Cainiao, the logistics arm of Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba, has announced the official launch of operations at its new smart warehouse in Huiyang, Guongdong province.
According to Alibaba, it’s home to the largest population of mobile robots in China. There are over 100 AGVs (automated guided vehicles) in the warehouse, which occupies approximately 3,000 square metres.
Equipped with WiFi and self-charging, these robots are responsible for moving goods around. Looking not unlike a larger version of the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, the AGVs can travel at speeds of up to 1.5 meters (5 feet) per second and carry up to 600 kilos at one time.
Cainiao currently offers same-day and next-day delivery services to more than 1,000 regions in China. When a shopper places an order on Alibaba’s Tmall shopping site, an AGV is activated in the Huiyang warehouse. It locates an ordered item in the warehouse and transports it to a human warehouse clerk, who assembles and ships orders to customers.
Since the warehouse began operations in July, the company claims that efficiency among its human workers has improved three-fold.
In a traditional warehouse, Cainiao reckons, a worker might be expected to sort through 1,500 products during a 7.5-hour shift and fetching each item might require them to walk 27,924 steps during that time. “Now, thanks to the mobile robots, the clerk could sift through 3,000 products in the same shift, while only taking a significantly fewer 2,563 steps a day,” said the Alibaba Group company in a statement.
Each mobile robot is equipped with sensors, to avoid collisions, but managing an AGV fleet of this size still comes with challenges, according to Hu Haoyuan, a senior algorithm specialist at Cainiao.
“The computational difficulty of commanding 100 warehouse robots is much more complicated than instructing ten robots,” he said, explaining that collisions aside, there is also a need to optimize efficiency and minimize traffic congestion.
When fully charged, each AGV can work for eight hours straight. When its battery gets low, it automatically finds its way to a socket and recharges itself.