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What Is a Dark Warehouse: The Advantages and Disadvantages

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Warehouse Robotics

Fully automated warehouses can be a bit of a taboo subject for companies at times. After all, jobs performed by robots cannot be fulfilled by people. However, today’s very low unemployment rate means that more and more companies are having a hard time finding workers for these jobs so they are being forced to consider warehouse automation. This does sound like a dream scenario for supply chain executives: high productivity without the ancillary costs associated with a human workforce.

What Is a Dark Warehouse?

Dark warehouses are facilities where there is a lack of human input, and the bulk of work is done using robots and automated systems. A dark warehouse goes beyond a simple goods-to-person automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) in a warehouse. It also includes material handling equipment, self-guided forklifts, vision-guided robots, robotic palletizers, and high-speed conveyor systems. 

The picture painted by highly innovative companies is that of a completely “dark” warehouse, one that is manned entirely by robots and with no human labor. In most automated warehouses, the main task is carrying shelves of products to a human worker who then picks items from the shelves to pack for shipment. The next step is to automate the picking process entirely.

Advantages of a Dark Warehouse

Robotic workforces have many advantages over their human counterparts: They do not require breaks or vacations. The same machines can run all three shifts of the day without getting tired or complaining. They can withstand temperature extremes better than humans can (thus saving on heating/cooling costs), they do not need health insurance, etc.

Disadvantages of a Dark Warehouse

The downside of a dark warehouse is the tremendous upfront capital expenditure. While humans are costly over the long haul, that money is paid out in small increments. To fully automate a warehouse requires a great amount of upfront cost that many companies can have a hard time justifying. Dark warehouses also have the limitation of simplicity. The higher the complexity of a process, the higher the cost of an automated process.

Regardless of that high upfront capital expenditure, a dark warehouse is becoming a goal for many. These types of facilities are most possible in the warehouse where people are moving large quantities of the same types of objects. Another type of facility that has been a candidate for full or near-full automation is cold storage or freezer warehouses such as those used in the food and beverage space or pharmaceutical industry. Automation reduces the exposure of human workers to adverse conditions as well as helps maintain climate control.

Ultimately, the path to a dark warehouse is first reliant on the implementation of these three things

ASRS are “lights out” by design since there is no room for a human operator within them. These work best in distribution centers that handle high volumes of inventory moving in and out of storage. The best-of-breed ASRS solutions can sort, sequence, and bugger goods for tasks such as picking, order fulfillment, and temporary or long-term storage. High-speed sorting equipment can operate independently of human control and get the goods where they need to be. 

Recent innovations have allowed the robotic workforce to become mobile. Using wireless instructions from a warehouse management system (WMS) or warehouse execution system (WES), these robots can transport pallets and cases of goods throughout the warehouse.

While we are still ways out from dark warehouses becoming the norm, it is best to start considering the possibility as soon as possible. With rapid technological advancement, it likely wil not be long before lights out facilities become more and more prevalent. 

Learn how enVista’s warehouse design team can help your organization prepare for the future!

Strategically leverage dark warehouse automation and other warehouse automation for competitive advantage.

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