Warehouse automation: Misumi brings technology to distribution centers and fulfillment centers

The warehouse and distribution center sector has seen an uptick in automation implementation. In this episode of Control Intelligence, editor in chief Mike Bacidore is joined by Mike Milligan, industry segment manager, warehouse automation, Misumi, to discuss automation solutions that are being implemented in these environments.


Mike Bacidore: Hello, and welcome to today's episode of Control Intelligence. I'm Mike Bacidore, editor in chief of Control Design and your host for today's podcast. In this episode, I'm joined by Mike Milligan, who is an industry segment manager for warehouse automation at Misumi. We'll be talking about automation and technology solutions being implemented in warehouses, distribution centers and fulfillment centers.

Mike's role at MISUMI involves developing strategies for how Misumi is offering products that can be utilized to build warehouse automation solutions. Prior to his role as industry segment manager, Mike worked in both sales and engineering roles at Misumi.

In his sales role, he served the southeast region of the United States and focused primarily in the packaging industry, which became a natural transition to warehouse automation solutions. Before working for MISUMI, Mike graduated with a degree from the University of Illinois and later earned his MBA from the University of Georgia.

Hi, Mike. And thanks for joining us today.

Mike Milligan: Hi, Mike. Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.

Mike Bacidore: Great. So, for those individuals who may be unfamiliar with Misumi, can you please explain a little bit about the company, what it does and that sort of thing?

Mike Milligan: Yeah. So, Misumi is a manufacturer and distributor of mechanical and electrical components. We make and supply parts for a variety of industries, our largest being automotive and medical. And we recently identified warehouse automation as a growth industry that requires a little bit more focus.

We believe our product lineup plays really well in the warehouse automation space, we carry components like linear-rotary and structural products like linear shafts, rotary shafts, timing pulleys, aluminum extrusion, rotary bearings, linear bearings, all those sorts of components that really work well for warehouse automation equipment. We also believe that our supply model enables us to support our customers from the beginning of the design process because of our no-minimum order quantities through the life of the equipment.

Mike Bacidore: Great. It sounds like you have an extraordinary breadth of offerings. And that certainly translates well into that warehouse and distribution center industry, which, like you said, is certainly one of the growing industries. Now, Misumi is known for its configurable model. Can you explain how exactly that works?

Mike Milligan: Yeah, absolutely. So, Misumi's configurable model is pretty unique in the industry. Historically, parts have either been standard off-the-shelf sizes from a catalog that come with part numbers, or they're custom parts that are fabricated at a machine shop based on a drawing made by an engineer. There are definitely pros and cons to both of those solutions.

Catalog parts are readily available, but you're limited by the number of options that are on the shelf. And then conversely, machine shops are more expensive and have a little bit less consistent lead time, which you're able to get exactly what you need. Misumi's configurable model aims to combine the benefits of both of those options.

Like standard catalog parts, Misumi also operates out of a catalog, and with part numbers that are dimensioned, they're what we call configurable. The best way for me to explain configurable...I normally like having, like, an example, but this is your podcast, so hopefully, allow me to do that, and so I'll just kind of walk through a quick example.

So, say you have a linear shaft, one end was threaded and the other end was tapped. You could get this made in a machine shop, they'd be able to get you exactly what you wanted, but maybe you only need a couple of them and their machine shop's going to charge up setup fees and all of that.

So, Misumi, if you can just go onto our website, Look up the linear shafts, you can choose the one-end tapped, one-end threaded option. And that will take you to what we call our configurator page. And then from the configurator page, you can start building your part. And so you choose your material, your surface treatment, your hardness, your tolerance options, or your tolerance specification for the diameter, and then you start picking your actual dimensions.

And so for things like the diameter and the thread sizes, those are kind of more standard options, like, diameters are whole numbers, thread sizes, you know, your typical, and M6, M8. But then for things like length, you're able to configure or choose your length to a .1-millimeter specifications, and same things with, like, the thread length and the depth of the tap. And you're also able to add things like wrench flats if you need something like that. And so once you select all of those different options, you have. not have a part number, we're able to readily see our pricing, our lead time online, or lead times all shipping from a warehouse in the United States.

And then you're able to also download the CAD, which is another great feature because normally you have to make your drawing and then send it to a machine shop and now you can just configure it online, download the drawing and it's ready to go.

Mike Bacidore: That's very handy. Can it be done from pretty much anywhere as long as you have a web browser?

Mike Milligan: Yeah, absolutely.

Mike Bacidore: So, given the labor shortage, and, you know, obviously in a warehouse or distribution center, a high percentage of manual operation that's necessary, what kinds of equipment are helping those places to automate many of those processes?

Mike Milligan: This is a great question because, historically, they really have been very manual, you know, distribution centers. And I think that it's interesting to kind of follow the goods through the distribution center. You know, they arrive at the dock, they have to get unloaded off a truck.

And so that's a person, a licensed forklift driver unloading and bringing them over to an area to be depalletized so that they can then be sorted and put on the shelf. It gets a lot of people touching a lot of different components, a lot of product. That's just, it takes time. And so kind of every step along the way is starting to be automated.

So, there are autonomous forklifts now, mobile robotics are starting to really help make the unloading process more efficient. And then once it's unloaded by autonomous forklifts, there are many ways to depalletize the pallet without having to have people with knives cutting off the wrap and removing boxes individually.

There's robotic arms that can now take off the wrap and move stuff from boxes and send it down a conveyor line so it can be sorted. And then there's the whole getting product onto a shelf and off of a shelf, you know, storing it and then retrieving it. There are a lot of different ways you can do that.

And you can use mobile robotics, again, you can use AGVs, which are automated guided vehicles, or AMRs, which are autonomous mobile robots. And they can bring goods from point A to point B so that people don't have to walk through the warehouse of a distribution center.

You can also use systems like automated storage and retrieval systems, which have, I don't know if you've ever seen that, it's the big rack system that has a little shuttle that go and navigate and they drop things off, and they document where it is, on which shelf, and then when you need it, they go and retrieve it for you and bring it right back.

So, both of those, those two options have really helped automate storing and retrieving, which take a lot of space and a lot of time. And as you move further through the distribution center, okay, great. Now, you've retrieved what you need and what the customer wants, and they've got to package it.

Packaging is still very manual at a lot of distribution centers, especially depending on what they're shipping. There's a lot of unique products that are all different sizes and shapes, someone's got to load that box. There's still not a great way of packing that without someone looking at it and knowing which size box to use, but that is slowly becoming more and more automated. And then once it's packaged, it's got to get to the truck, right? The next truck to get loaded and get to the customer.

And so you can either throw all those things into a cart that's been pushed to the truck, that's not very efficient knowledge. It's a lot of big sortation systems that items get packaged, they get sent down a conveyor, now it's the conveyor that just does the sorting for it, it gets it to the right dock.

And then there are people at the end of the dock that either load it onto the truck or there are, again, more forklifts, autonomous forklifts, or AMRs that are loading it onto the truck. And so every step along the way is starting to see more and more automation. We haven't quite gotten to the fully automated, no humans yet, but, I mean, they're constantly making more innovations, and we're really making leaps and bounds, especially in this day and age of e-commerce.

Mike Bacidore: Absolutely. That's interesting. You say that with the autonomous, I don't know that, well, never say never, but I don't know that there will ever be an autonomous distribution center per se. But it's interesting that MassRobotics has developed the interoperability standard for the AMRs now that they are testing at the FedEx Dart center.

And it's just amazing that you have so many of these robots just going all over the place in a lot of these facilities where, you know, they have to be able to, at least not run into one another just because there's becoming so many of them around.

Mike Milligan: They can't run into each other and people, that's the other thing, right?

Mike Bacidore: Yes. Yeah. Even more important.

Mike Milligan: People aren't predictable, and robots are predictable.

Mike Bacidore: Right. People not so much. Yes. So, speaking of these fulfillment centers, and, you know, one of the paradoxes is they're getting bigger, and they're getting smaller at the same time. So, can you talk a little bit about micro-fulfillment, and how the rise in that has changed the market, and how also, will larger scale distribution centers change the market?

Mike Milligan: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think that it's important to kind of establish what we think the market is. And so I'm kind of looking at it from the consumer perspective. So, I think that consumers have come to expect their goods to be shipped free and to receive them in two days. That's kind of standard, especially from a big-box store, a big major company, right?

Like, they're expecting it to be free shipping and to get it fast. And so micro-fulfillment centers really aim to improve on that two-day delivery. They're saying, you know, we're gonna implement these micro-fulfillment centers in densely populated areas, they're gonna have a smaller footprint than our normal big fulfillment center, because real estate's very expensive in urban settings.

And we want to get as many products packed into this micro-distribution center so that we have products now closer to the consumers. And so their goal is to get products into people's hands, same day, whether that's someone walking up and picking them up, or getting them delivered. And so automated storage and retrieval systems are really ideal and perfect for that micro-fulfillment space because they really optimize every space, every inch of those warehouses, right, from the floor all the way to the ceiling.

And then kind of outside of consumer products, we're also seeing a rise in micro-fulfillment in the grocery industry. Consumers are starting to want more from their grocery store chains. They are not really content having to walk the aisles and see what food is there, and just do that whole process. I mean, I do it three times a week, I'm constantly at the grocery store.

People want to have groceries delivered to them, either by the grocery store or by a third party, or at least brought to them curbside, and that requires people to pick, like, workers have to be in there picking things off of shelves for these customers so that they don't have to do it themselves.

And that's a very inefficient process. And so, you know, micro-fulfillment is aiming to have robots do that picking, maybe they're not walking, rolling, whatever, up and down the shelves. But maybe it's, again, one of those automated storage and retrieval systems, or mobile robotic systems that is able to just pick everything for you, and then you just show up and your groceries are ready to be picked up.

And so I think that it's going to continue to trend more and more that way. Groceries at least will continue to trend more and more that way as people kind of decide they don't like being at the grocery store all the time. And then conversely, you had mentioned massive distribution centers, how has that changed in the market?

So, if we look at it, again, from customers are expecting things in two days, the huge distribution centers are aiming to continue that and to help get the costs down from, you know, the company's end. So, the more goods they're able to have, again, closer to customers, the cheaper it's going to be to do the shipping to get it to them.

And so these massive distribution centers, they really help a lot of innovation happen, because they're generally combining a lot of different types of, like, automation equipment. It's not just one single system, it's a whole bunch of different company systems that are then linked together by maybe, like, a big integrator.

And so it allows these smaller companies to have their equipment be used and tested in these huge settings, and allows them to then have the capital to innovate further. And so the massive distribution centers are really kind of integral and just the furthering of warehouse automation or fulfillment automation.

Mike Bacidore: Right. So, you've walked us through the warehouse, the distribution center, you know, from the arrival of materials to the deployment of them and that whole process. Can you talk a little bit about of those steps that you've mentioned, which one of those are, well, which one is the most complex in terms of trying to automate fulfillment process?

Mike Milligan: So, I touched on it a little bit when I gave my big, long answer earlier, but packaging is one of the most complex, just because the parts that are being packaged are complex, you're taking something 3-D and putting it into something else that's into a 3-D empty space, it's incredibly complex to automate just because it's always going to be a little bit different.

And then, another part of packaging is, it's kind of like the picking, right? So, we have automated storage and retrieval systems, but the robotic arms that do picking as well, their vision technology has gotten so much better and they can identify different types of goods.

Like, you might have good feeding into a big bin or whatever, and these robotic arms are able to know what it needs to pick, find it in there, and then pick it accordingly. And that blows my mind. Like, I remember being at trade shows five years ago and seeing, you know, just a pick and place that's moving, like, a marble from one tray to another tray. I'm like, "That's cool. That does a task, that's a needed task." But now you see these robotic arms doing pick and place with these very complex items, and it's just crazy how fast everything continues to develop.

And then another complex thing that you actually touched on was, it's just like AMRs, the autonomous mobile robots and you have a whole bunch of them in a small space, right, that are all just moving around each other. I'm not a software guy, I'm not a technology guy, but the software and technology in electronics that have to go into those just blows my mind, because they all have to know where each other are at all times.

In some ways, you get tens or hundreds of these all interacting. And to me, that's just crazy to think of how that can just be a part of a bigger and even bigger system. You have 100, you know, robots moving around that are then a part of an even bigger chain in that fulfillment center or warehouse. And then we kind of, again, touched on this other point is, will fulfillment center ever be able to go dark where it doesn't have any people in it, right, it's just robots doing the whole process?

I think you said that you don't really see that happening, I think someone's gonna do it. I think someone's gonna do it just to say that they did it.

Mike Bacidore: Yes, I agree.

Mike Milligan: I don't know how well it's gonna work. Yeah, I don't know how well it's gonna work. I think it's gonna have a lot of supervision and a lot of troubleshooting, but I think someone's gonna do it. And then once someone does it, we'll learn a lot.

And I don't think it'd be done well for a long time, but I think someone's gonna take a very...maybe a very smaller specific, like, product that's being sent at a fulfillment center and will try to do the whole process automated. And like I said, we'll learn a lot. And so until someone does it, we won't know what needs to be done. And, so, yeah.

Mike Bacidore: Right. Yeah, perhaps it'll just be staffed by the man and the dog.

Mike Milligan: Yeah. Exactly.

Mike Bacidore: And the man's there to feed the dog and the dog is there to bite the man if he tries to touch any of the controls.

Mike Milligan: Exactly.

Mike Bacidore: So, speaking of technologies, I know you're not a technology guy, per se, but in terms of the technologies themselves, I know you've already talked about quite a few of these, but which technologies would you say have zeroed in on allowing warehouses to increase the throughput rates but also expand the product ranges and still maintain accurate order fulfillment? So, I mean, those are three things right there that, how you do all three of those things?

Mike Milligan: Yeah. Normally, one increases at the detriment of another, right?

Mike Bacidore: Exactly.

Mike Milligan: And so, yeah. I think one of the biggest things is just the inventory management software and solutions that exist. It's no longer like a guy or a gal putting numbers into Excel to keep track of inventory, the robots know, right? It's, everything is scanned, everything is a barcode, everything is cataloged. And when you know what is where, at all times, and how many, it allows you to be just incredibly efficient.

You don't have, like, out-of-stock issues as often unless someone buys your entire stock, but you're able to have safety stock, you're able to kind of foresee some of those issues happening. Another major factor is, it's getting things to the truck, right? So, you've now got things packaged, how do you make sure that you're still accurate and getting it to the customer in the most efficient way possible?

Since everything's got a barcode, everything's scanned, it's no longer someone just assuming that this is the package that goes on that truck. It's all being sent down a conveyor line, it's being sorted, and it's going to get on the right truck so it doesn't go to St. Louis instead of Chicago. And that goes a long way, that keeps customers happy. Like, it doesn't waste time in logistics, and it helps with maintaining your accuracy. It's getting to them when you say it's going to get to them.

Mike Bacidore: Right. Right. So, warehouse automation technology it's, I wouldn't say a perfect solution, but, certainly, for the times, it's very pertinent right now. But that same technology can be used to solve other problems in different industries as well. For example, mobile robotics isn't solely used for fulfillment purposes, as we were talking about. Can you explain maybe, in your experience, at least, what are some other areas where you're seeing this type of technology popping up?

Mike Milligan: Yeah. So, mobile robotics is a great place to start. Like, they're starting to be integrated into people's everyday life. People own little robots now that vacuum their floors or mow their grass. Like, it's not just like business to business, it's business to consumer. Like, I have a vacuum that goes around my living room and picks up all the pet hair.

So, it's much simpler than some of the other technology, but it's normalizing the technology. We're also seeing things like autonomous cars, right? Like that... Who knows if we'll ever get there if we probably will, but, I mean, that's just a big-scale mobile robot, right?

And then things like last-mile delivery, like, that's still in the distribution center and warehouse automation kind of helm because it's getting products to the end customer, but, like, mobile robots, you might see them going down a sidewalk to deliver a package.

And, again, mobile robots are also seen outside of warehouses, but still in businesses. You might have, like, a cleaning or a sanitizing robot that goes around with a UV light, or at spraying a disinfectant, you know, through an office space, or that's cleaning the floor in an office space.

And then things like industrial robotic arms are definitely not limited to warehouse automation. They didn't even start warehouse automation. Like, automotive has been using robotic arms to do welding and help with the car assembly for years and years, and years. But we're also seeing robotic arms in things like surgeries, right?

And so, it's, that is way more fine-tuned and specific than warehouse automation will ever be like. I'm blown away by a robotic arm identifying a teddy bear and being able to pick it up. But then I couldn't imagine having a robot, you know, give me knee surgery. Like, that's crazy. But it's happening, and it's gonna continue happening.

And as that technology keeps getting better, it's only going to free up, you know, surgeons times to do more complex and...just more complex surgeries. And then sortation equipment. Sortation equipment has been used outside warehouses for a long time as well. Airport luggage handling is a great example.

I never really pictured what that would look like until I had seen "Toy Story 2" when I was a little kid, and there's the scene towards the end of the movie where they're in the airport, they're riding the bags through this huge, big complex, you know, set of conveyors. And I was just, like, "That is crazy. Like, how does any of that know where it's going?"

And I realized the movie's and cartoon depiction of it, but it holds true, right? Like, you just let that go down the chute, and then they're gone. And then hopefully they're waiting for us when we get to wherever we're going. But, yeah. That's just big sortation equipment that have to be right every time.

And whenever it's not right, those airlines hear it on social media. And so they're definitely incentivized to have that equipment work right every single time. And so, you know, whether it's in a warehouse, or at an airport, or whether it's a little robot in your house, like, we're seeing very similar technology kind of just expanding across the board. And it's a pretty exciting time.

Mike Bacidore: Absolutely. Great answers to all those questions. Really insightful stuff, and I think very valuable just in terms of what's coming down the road and some of the things that MISUMI has to offer in that equation as well. So, thanks so much for joining us, Mike.

Mike Milligan: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

Mike Bacidore: Yeah, absolutely. And thanks to all our listeners for joining us on Control Intelligence, the podcast for Control Design magazine. Thanks, of course to Misumi's Mike Milligan for his insights into warehouse automation solutions.

If you enjoyed this episode of Control Intelligence, don't miss our older episodes and subscribe to find new podcasts in the future. You can find our podcast library at, or download all episodes via Apple Podcasts or Google Play.

Thanks, again, Mike.

Mike Milligan: Yeah, thanks again for having me. It was great to be here.

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