All ducks in a row
© gorodenkoff (iStock)
February 2023

All ducks in a row

Fully automatic and highly efficient: That’s how warehouses have become critical hubs of resilient supply chains.

When Hamburg’s Speicherstadt warehouse district was inaugurated in 1888 it was the largest and most advanced complex of its kind in the world. The area offered 300,000 square meters (74.13 acres) – equaling 42 soccer fields – of storage space. Not only its size was impressive but so was the time it took to build it: the district was completed in less than five years. On the occasion of its inauguration by Emperor Wilhelm II the citizens of Hamburg were given a work-free “Emperor’s Day.”

No one in 1888 could have guessed that the Speicherstadt would one day become a UNESCO World Heritage Site and resulting tourist attraction. Whether today’s record-breaking warehouse facilities will also be included on that distinguished list some day is doubtful but not impossible. Be that as it may, their humongous rack and shelve systems are awesome.

  • The Kaiserspeicher in the Port of Hamburg around 1875 (with clock tower), today ...
    The Kaiserspeicher in the Port of Hamburg around 1875 (with clock tower), today the world-famous Elbphilharmonie is located here – just a stone’s throw away is the Speicherstadt that was inaugurated in 1888 – the world’s largest warehouse complex at the time © Georg Koppmann (Wikipedia)
  • Hustle and bustle on the quay in Hamburg harbor in 1900
    Hustle and bustle on the quay in Hamburg harbor in 1900 © Wikipedia

But let’s stay in the here and now. The global warehouse market of 648.35 billion U.S. dollars in 2021 is expected to nearly double to 1,264.01 billion U.S. dollars by 2030, according to a study by Straight Research. “The e-commerce business that’s seeing strong continuing growth and the related changes to the supply chains are key drivers of this development,” says Alexander Krooß from Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics in Dortmund.


pallets can be placed into a high-bay warehouse near Würzburg. The 77-meter-long, 32-meter-wide, and 30-meter-high facility (253 x 105 x 98 feet) is special because it has been constructed from wood.

All ducks in a row© Alnatura

So, it comes as no surprise that the world's largest high-tech warehouse is currently operated by e-commerce giant Amazon. The dimensions are truly impressive: with a footprint of 334,450 square meters (83 acres), the MQY1 Fulfillment Center in the U.S. state of Tennessee is as large as the entire Speicherstadt warehouse district in Hamburg. Astonishing as well is a look inside that reveals a level of hustle and bustle similar to the activities that used to take place between the warehouses in Hamburg in the old days – except that, in addition to 3,000 people and a total of 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) of conveyor belts, there are hundreds of robots involved in the hustle and bustle. Among other things, they’re supposed to relieve their human colleagues of heavy lifting and hauling tasks, which in older Amazon warehouses had doubled the risk of injury compared to that in warehouses of other companies.

On five floors, each as large as a dozen football fields, millions of items with a maximum size of 45 by 45 centimeters (7.9 x 7.9 inches) are stored. They are stowed in 40,000 crates, which in turn are placed on mobile shelves. Flat mobile robots piggyback the shelves, which are around three meters (10 ft) tall, and take them to the sortation stations where they’re loaded and unloaded. The crates, by the way, are not packed according to categories of merchandise; random stowage has proved to be more efficient, so memory cards quite naturally go into the same crate as fishing accessories and children's toys.

At 334,450 square meters (83 acres), the MQY1 Fulfilment Centre in the US state of Tennessee is as large as the entire Speicherstadt warehouse district in Hamburg

While Amazon's mega warehouse follows a classic shelf layout with stocking from the side more and more companies are turning this concept upside down. Instead of lifting pallets from the floor using automated vehicles, modern layouts feature arrangements where the racks are filled from the top down – albeit typically not with pallets but with bins.

In “Cube Storage,” the goods are stored practically like a beer crate
All ducks in a row
In “Cube Storage,” the shelves are filled from above. Boxes are used instead of pallets© DHL

In such systems called cube storage, the goods are basically stored like they would be in a beer case, albeit with umpteen bottles stacked on top of each other. Warehouse robots drive on top of the grid like on a chessboard pattern and grab the boxes with their gripper plates. With the help of an artificial intelligence unit, the systems sort the goods and boxes for optimized distances and thus times – frequently used boxes are stored toward the top. “With the help of mathematical optimizations and AI-based algorithms, the systems can enhance their efficiency by relocating goods and bins to optimize the travel times of the robots,” says Fraunhofer’s Alexander Krooß.

How brick-and-mortar stores benefit from high-tech warehouses

AutoStore is one of the manufacturers of such cube storage systems. The Norwegian company says that it has worldwide operations and installed more than 1,000 systems in over 45 countries. A forward-thinking example is the store of sports goods retailer Decathlon in Calgary, Canada. The warehouse serves as both a warehouse for the store and as a distribution center for regional online retail. Customers find products for some 65 different sports at the store. If a customer wants to try on or try out a product, it takes warehouse robots a maximum of three minutes to pick and deliver it directly to the changing room. As another customer benefit, the store, compared to other locations, offers nearly twice as many articles, i.e., 145,000 instead of the usual 70,000 to 90,000. “Decathlon’s goal was to create a unique, new and better customer journey in this store,” says Diba Aleagha, Operations and E-Commerce Manager at Decathlon Canada. That’s how high-tech warehouses help brick-and-mortar stores become more resilient in competition with online retail.

A cube storage system in use at the sports goods retailer Decathlon: robots retrieve the goods from a warehouse with 145,000 items in a maximum of three minutes and bring them to the customer’s changing room
Flexible adjustment to changing needs

Other benefits of such systems are better space utilization, by as much as a factor of 4, according to AutoStore, and the potential to expand modular warehouses in current operations: the warehouse keeps growing along with the business – a hot topic in logistics. Warehouses growing at the same pace as business help develop new markets, for instance in e-commerce that is regularly challenged to improve its response to seasonal fluctuations. For instance, when business peaks around Christmas, robotic vehicles can be used.

E-grocery poses a special challenge in the area of automated warehouses. Electronic food retail has become firmly established not least due to covid, be it in the form of click & collect or home delivery. The shopping carts of consumers are a motley collection of product groups. The requirements to be met by intelligent picking are more complex than in the case of retailers with a more limited sales mix because frozen food follows different logistic chains than wine, avocados different ones than cheese, and shampoos different ones than fresh meat. That’s why e-grocery in particular calls for modular systems enabling agile adjustment to changing requirements and connections via an interface – so that fresh meat from a refrigerator can be placed into the same consignment as flour from a dry store, and napkins from standard storage.

Hustle and bustle in darkness

Autonomously traveling robots that, thanks to artificial intelligence, independently haul goods and even connect to form swarms when the load becomes too heavy or bulky for a single mobile robot are another hot topic (see also Schaeffler box). In the LoadRunner project, the Fraunhofer researchers in Dortmund demonstrate what’s possible: “The LoadRunner combines the benefits of powerful sorting and conveying technology with the high flexibility and scalability of autonomous robot swarms. It thus builds on the vision of future infrastructure-reduced logistics, which is a prerequisite for flexible response to the high dynamics of today’s logistics,” says Krooß.

With the LoadRunner, Fraunhofer researchers have set a global milestone in swarm robotics

Such AI-controlled robots are another building block toward achieving so-called “lights-out warehouses” or “dark stores.” The omission of lighting does not primarily serve the sustainability objective but refers to one-hundred percent automation because, unlike humans, machines do not require light for sorting and transporting goods quickly and precisely.

A look at Switzerland shows that such high-tech warehouses don’t necessarily involve huge dimensions. There, in an area of just 400 square meters (4,300 square feet), intralogistics expert Jungheinrich is in the process of establishing a so-called PowerCube for a medium-sized retailer in the electrical and lighting sector. The storage capacity of the cube with a height of nearly 10 meters (33 feet) and 25 levels is 18,000 bins, each with up to 50 kilos (110 lbs) of payload. Goods are transported by small electric shuttles running back and forth between the racks. Noyes, a startup company, even offers fully automatic warehouses with space ranging between 10 and 250 square meters (107 and 2,690 square feet). This is another example where a modular design enables integration or extension in current operations, including refrigeration if desired.

All ducks in a row
Storage in a cube with several levels – the start-up Noyes offers such fully automated warehouses with an area of between 10 and 250 square meters. The structure is modular© Noyes
Digital framework

It goes without saying that the flow of goods in high-tech warehouses
needs a correspondingly powerful data stream, given the high degree of
automation. “Nowadays, every warehouse or logistics center has to deal

It goes without saying that the flow of goods in high-tech warehouses requires a correspondingly powerful data stream, given the high level of
automation. “Nowadays, every warehouse or logistics center has to deal
with Big Data,” writes warehouse specialist Mecalux in a German-language blog post. “This involves processing an inconceivably large amount of information. A distribution chain without appropriate warehouse management software is in fact unthinkable.” But the extensive Big Data collections are not only intended to help document and manage the flow of goods. The source that is constantly and abundantly bubbling up data in the logistics halls as a result of the recorded movements of goods is an enormously valuable planning tool for any company, enabling it to respond proactively to market movements. Beyond routine business, the flood of digital information helps optimize existing warehouses, including conveyor technology and the flow of goods, with the help of simulation techniques, or to construct customized new buildings quickly and at optimized cost.

Five years of construction time, as in the case of Hamburg’s Speicherstadt warehouse district over 100 years ago, is something no company can afford today. The similar-sized giant Amazon warehouse in Tennessee was operational after nearly one year of construction.

Industrious speedsters

More and more automated guided vehicles – or AGVs for short – autonomously haul materials and goods to their intended places in the aisles of Schaeffler’s manufacturing plants. Currently, 100 of these industrious speedsters are deployed in the Group’s worldwide production sites. “Our goal is to implement 500 AGV applications worldwide by 2025 and to thereby save 25 million euros,” says Thomas Krämer, Senior Vice President, Advanced Production Technology. AGVs are floor-bound vehicles whose utilization is focused on in-house operations and that enable continuous, needs-based, and flexible supply to the factory floor. “The deployment of AGVs as a transportation system offers immense benefits: Besides optimizing our internal material flow using intelligently controlled vehicle fleets, they include enhanced industrial safety, better transparency within inventories, and higher availability and productivity increases due to 24-hour operations,” emphasizes Sebastian Hirschmann, Project Leader AGV@Schaeffler. “Likewise, the systems can be adjusted dynamically, flexibly and scaleably to the increasing level of automation in Schaeffler’s manufacturing environments.”

All ducks in a row
Schaeffler hat mehrere der autonom fahrenden Transporthelfer im Werk im deutschen Bühl im Einsatz© Dominik Obertreis
At the core of material flow: the fleet management system

All AGVs at a site are interconnected by a fleet management system and communicate with each other. The total system consists of the vehicle fleet itself, an overall control unit, localization tools and position acquisition, a data transmission device, as well as peripherals such as charging stations. The distances traveled by AGVs vary between roughly 250 meters (820 feet) per cycle in chain manufacturing operations in Bühl and up to 1.6 kilometers (one mile) in Skalica, where a tugger train AGV is used.

Going forward, Schaeffler is planning to deploy even more flexibly usable, mobile cobots in addition to AGVs. Project DEX that was developed at the Schaeffler Hub for Advanced Research at Technical University Nanyang in Singapore (NTU) in close collaboration with Orcadesign Consultants Pte. Ltd. provides a preview of such drivable robotic platforms. The project is intended to combine functionality with intelligent social behavior and to support and increase productivity in industrial environments for a wide variety of tasks.

Daniel Hautmann
Author Daniel Hautmann
Journalist Daniel Hautmann not only writes stories and books but also produces audio and video formats focused on technology, energy and the environment, and has repeatedly done work for “tomorrow.” While working on the current subject he detected some similarities to his everyday life: in order to precisely meet his deadlines, the freelancer, husband and father of a young soccer player and a young cyclist occasionally needs to perform major logistical feats himself.