The service robot industry continues to boom, as the International Federation of Robotics reported that sales of professional service robots rose 41% in 2020. During a recent trip to MODEX, one of the supply chain industries largest meetings, featuring more than 850 exhibitors, attendees could not help but be overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of robots on the show floor. Robots large and small dominated the booth displays in an impressive spectacle of “what could be” in your DC if you choose to invest in robotic technology.
But there is a delicate balance between the shortage of labor and high labor costs, the chief executives who tell managers, “go experiment with robots and figure it out,” and the workforce that wants to work on “cool tech projects.” There is no doubt that the future environment of warehouses and distribution centers will be a mix of people, robots, machines and systems all working together. The precise orchestration of all the pieces will be key to achieving a competitive advantage in performance. But where do you start?
Setting the Path Forward
Many DC executives are hesitant and somewhat perplexed when it comes to where to start, what processes to focus on and what resources they need. In the following paragraphs, we’ll examine where to start when it comes to introducing robots into the warehouse, what processes to start with and why, and what resources are needed to make it work. We’ll provide an overview of the principal tasks and workflows that will combine robots and people, and describe how AI technology can be used to plan, manage, and orchestrate the activities of the hybrid workforce.
Making the business case
In understanding where to start, make sure that your projects and objectives connect directly to your most strategic imperatives. What is the main goal of the organization? Is it DC transformation? To use process improvement as a vehicle for growth? Or possibly to mitigate labor costs? Do you need it to stay competitive? Whatever the reasons, make sure your project focus aligns with and accounts for your highest level goals.
Next, zero in on the specific processes that you want to focus on. It is around optimizing your slotting operations? Workflow orchestration of people, assets and machines also offers the possibility of significant gains. Workforce planning, performance management and especially in-warehouse travel optimization can also be areas of focus. Whatever you decide are your highest priorities, make sure that your solution is specifically built to address them.
Finally, understand what resources you will need. Implementation costs for automation and robotics can vary widely. A 2021 report cited the relatively high capital expenditure required to set up and install warehouse robots, with the average cost of a mobile robot ranging from $25,000 - $100,000, and the average cost of fixed robots ranging from $40,000 - 400,000. Truly understanding the promised ROI and the actual probability of achieving it will be critical to whether you will be able to undertake a project, and if implemented, whether it will be judged truly successful.
Use Cases to Build On
That being said, and understanding that in-warehouse travel is the king of ROI, accounting for more than 30% of labor costs, there are multiple use cases to build on. Some examples of how the worker and robot collaboration can be implemented include:
- Case picking with staging drop off – In these work situations, the AMR/human orchestration can significantly reduce wasted people travel time by building mixed pallets directly on AMRs. It also minimizes the amount of time specialized employees have to leave their zones to transport cases and partial pallets through the facility. Moreover, it decreases order turnaround time and can reduce forklift and lift truck accidents and congestion.
- “Follow the robot” each and batch picking - AMRs function like powered, intelligent picking carts or pallet jacks. The AMRs can carry bigger batches of orders, improving pick density utilizing AI to create batches. This optimizes collaborative picking productivity, reduces needed labor and wasted travel time.
- Transit robots for staging runs and product marshalling - Conventional voice-directed pickers using push carts within picking aisles off-load completed totes or cartons at staging locations. AI notifies an available robot to fetch and transport the tote to their next destination. Again, benefits include reduced labor and congestion, as well as improved safety.
- Full pallet moves and transfers - Robots can perform full-pallet putaway or replenishment moves, replacing people in one of the most travel-intensive activities in the DC. The benefits in this area include safely transporting large ad heavy payloads autonomously, while creating a less congested and safer warehouse environment. It also allows DCs to repurpose forklift operators to higher value tasks, rather than spending labor hours on wasted travel. Common work types here include putaway, pallet picking and cross docking.
Adding the Secret Sauce to Optimize the Worker and Robot Dynamic
The key to all of this is the ability to orchestrate the various components in these interactions to their optimal performance. Optimization software and AI is the “secret sauce” that brings it all together. For instance, DC workers using multi-modal mobile applications combining voice, vision and scanning; interacting with robots using speech, lights, RFID and other mobile technologies; to create the perfect balance between cost and quality in your DC.
DCs using robots can utilize warehouse optimization solutions for manual process optimization through intelligent work batching, real-time pick-path optimization and other forms of software smarts. Likewise, human order pickers will have to be closely coordinated with AMRs to ensure the DC is fully utilizing its robots and getting products sorted, packed and shipped on time.
In an AMR-supported picking workflow, for example, a worker can avoid a lot of unnecessary walking by picking items to a tote on an AMR, directing the AMR to a conveyor system to unload, and then triggering another robot to move into place for the worker to continue picking.
Interfaces with the robots and workers can be directed by voice. Similar to a conventional voice picking systems, workers confirm their work using voice, scan, RFID, or robot mounted screens or lights.
The results can be dramatic. A Lucas blog post, The ROI of Autonomous Mobile Robots in Your DC, estimated that some facilities could double productivity and save $350,000 in annual labor costs utilizing AMRs for a goods-to-person or robot-to-goods picking solution with 10 workers.
Getting your project going
We’ve shared quite a bit about why organizations should explore adding robots to warehouse operations and the significant benefits it can afford you. We’ve also shared many of the specific ways robots can be utilized in harmony with their human coworkers to create efficiencies in process and cost. But how do you functionally move forward with your due diligence?
First, take part in an operational assessment. Lucas for example offers many resources to help begin your journey to transform your distribution operation into a competitive advantage, including on-site and virtual assessments, as well as an easy online savings calculator.
Second, you will likely want to work with a partner to build the business case. While many companies have an incredible amount of in-house knowledge and experience, having a partner with specific expertise in particular areas of warehouse operations brings a fresh set of eyes and knowledge to the interaction, which can be invaluable in setting new levels of optimization for your DC. Make sure they are invested in your success and have the infrastructure and customer support that will ensure a smooth project implementation.
Finally, refine the details of your particular solution and make sure that they align with your most strategic goals, both within the warehouse and corporately. As shared before, understanding and alignment by all stakeholders on what you most hope to accomplish with this engagement will go a long way in ensuring that everyone buys in, the project stays on track and that you are ultimately successful.