What Are Dark Warehouses?

This might sound straight out of science fiction, but dark warehouses have been in the warehousing scene for many years. It means a warehouse that can operate in the dark without human input. This is possible since machines and robots do not need light to see.

In its simplest and basic sense, a dark warehouse is a lights-off warehouse.

This should, however, not be confused with pick-by-light or pick-to-light warehouses. In such warehouses, forklifts are guided to the correct location for stacking goods on a rack or to pick goods from it, by lights. These lights come on along the aisles directing the forklift operator accurately to the location. Once the task is completed or the forklift passes a certain section, the lights go off once again. This is also referred to as light-guided warehousing.

Dark warehouses may be all the more significant especially during the Coronavirus pandemic when people are required to stay indoors, maintain social distancing, etc. Though staggered shifts help to address the issue of social distancing and avoiding overcrowding to a certain extent, it is not the complete solution. Automation may, to a great extent, help address such uncertain situations.

A dark warehouse is a fully automated warehouse that is equipped to handle inventory by following systems commands. Goods can be moved, sorted, or even packed by robots or other automated machines doing away with the need for intensive physical labour. Goods can be moved to almost any location within the warehouse using automated machines and robots.

Since it would not be a good idea to leave the entire operations to programmed machines, a few workers would be required inside these warehouses to manage the robots, software, and other machinery.

Typically, the following activities are carried out in a dark warehouse:

  • Receipt and storage of goods
  • Identification and retrieval
  • Sorting
  • Packaging and labelling of goods
  • Packing
  • Loading

Automated Material Handling Equipment (MHE) such as self-guiding forklifts and trollies, robotic arms, automated sorters, conveyor belts, lifts, automated pallet stackers, packaging and labelling machines, etc. may be part of a dark warehouse.

Let us see what happens inside a typical dark warehouse.

Dark Warehouses
Representation image

Receipt and Storage of Goods

Stocks that are received at the warehouse are offloaded using conveyor belts or self-guiding forklifts and moved to the location meant for sorting. These goods are then sorted by the automated sorting machines and placed on trollies for moving to their respective storage locations. Robotic arms help to identify, pick, and place the individual units in their correct positions.

Goods may be stacked using pallet stackers. Those that need to be moved to upper locations within the warehouse are placed on lifts that take them to the correct level of the warehouse. From here, it is handled by the automated MHE and moved to their allotted storage locations.

Identification and Retrieval of Goods

When an order is received and it is time to retrieve the stocks for dispatch, the process described above is reversed. Stocks are identified, picked, sorted, and moved to a location ready for packaging and labelling or just packing.

Barcodes

Accurate identification of goods is usually done with the help of barcodes. What are barcodes? Barcodes are single-dimensional or 2-dimensional codes that can be read by special optical scanners or these days even by smartphones with barcode-reading software installed in them. These codes contain data relating to the specific product.

Single dimensional or linear barcodes appear as a set of parallel lines or bars of different widths and spacing between them. Barcode scanners convert these codes into a readable data format. The 2D barcodes also referred to as matrix codes, are made up of dots, rectangles, and other such patterns. One advantage of the matrix codes is that they can be read by a 2D barcode reader, a digital camera, or even a smartphone with the barcode-reading software in it.

Barcodes are concise as well as aesthetic, besides taking up very little printing space on a package.

Packaging and Labeling

Packaging and labelling may be part of the requirements of a customer order. In this case, special packaging and labelling machines that are programmed to wrap or package the individual units of goods and affix printed labels on them are deployed. Special printing machines that print directly on the product wrapper are also used sometimes. Such machines save on the cost of labels. Once this process is completed, the goods are ready for packing.

Packing of Orders

Packing involves picking and arranging the goods in manageable larger units such as a standard pallet load. A standard pallet has a dimension of 48 inches X 40 inches while a euro pallet measures 47.24 inches X 31.50 inches. Packed goods may also require labelling depending on government regulations. In such cases, the packed goods are directed to the labelling machines for fixing the labels or printing and returned.

Loading

Loading involves moving the packed order from their location inside the warehouse to their respective transport for dispatch. This is accomplished by the use of conveyor belts or self-guiding forklifts that place these stocks inside the truck or a multi-modal shipping container. Once loading is complete, open trucks are usually covered using tarpaulin or plastic sheets.

Dark Warehouses – a Synopsis

While robotics may sound exciting, it has to be implemented and used with caution. Warehousing is an otherwise labour-intensive industry. Take away the labour and the prospect of unemployment looms. Moreover, the capital expenses involved in setting up a dark warehouse can be very high, and usually, such expenses have to be paid upfront.

Modern warehouses that already have automated storage and retrieval systems and sorting machinery can be converted to dark warehouses easily. Most warehouses that go for this kind of conversion are distribution warehouses that handle a very large volume of goods. Integration of an organization’s systems such as a Warehouse Management System (WMS) and its Supply Chain Management System aids in the implementation of a dark warehouse.

With advanced technology, dark warehouses are becoming increasingly popular. They can drastically increase the efficiency of a warehouse management system. In a scenario where labour is scarce or required to be curtailed, this might be the perfect solution. Machines and robots do not need holidays nor do they complain! They can work in intense temperatures or conditions, as many shifts as required.

Paying wages to employees can be far more expensive in the long run, when compared to installing a dark warehouse and its associated charges. Since handling by machines is considered more hygienic than the handling of goods by humans, cold storage facilities, pharmaceutical warehouses, and the food industry are increasingly opting for dark warehouses.

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Disclaimer: The authors’ views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Marine Insight. Data and charts, if used, in the article have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Marine Insight do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendations on any course of action to be followed by the reader.

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