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Wholesaler-distributors looking to become leaner and execute flawlessly are recognizing a rapidly changing landscape, pushing many to consider investments in core warehouse distribution operations to capture incremental efficiencies. The race is on and the clock is ticking.
But you can’t keep throwing more labor at your business growth — or bigger carts. I’d like to believe many will be proactive in pushing the right levers to adapt — and win — in this new landscape.
Gone are the days when robotics was confined to science fiction and bold predictions of the future. The last few years have seen a lot of buzz around robotics technology, specifically “cobots” (humans working alongside robots) to transport materials, address labor issues, control costs and drive efficiency, productivity and reliability. This comes at a time where there is an increasing need for logistics workers, driven by e-commerce, while at the same time experiencing a scarcity in the labor workforce.
Why is the case for robotics in distribution centers and warehouses becoming more apparent every day? Your warehouse associates are traveling (walking) thousands of miles each year — from one location to another. So, it’s time to understand robotics technology as a viable product transport solution. But we do need to cut through the noise to see whether we can implement robotics across industries.
More specifically, can it be an option for smaller wholesale-distribution companies and, of course, what’s the ROI? Does it make financial as well as operational sense?
Several factors are influencing the robotics marketplace:
1. The concept of “robotics-as-a-service” is gaining popularity as it has the advantage of shifting capital expenditure to operational expenditure.
2. Another breakthrough is the availability of autonomous robots that carry heavier payloads, even up to 3,000 lb.
3. Companies find that there is less need for automation — “fixed to the floor” — so you can take a modular approach to acquisition, resulting in lowered overall deployment costs.
If you’re considering a robotics project to seek out answers and solutions to your materials handling needs (picking, receiving, put-away and other product transport requirements) while reducing distribution transaction costs, the question becomes — where to begin? How to you minimize labor shortages, obtain higher through-puts and greater space utilization? It’s all about delivering orders to their next destination both within your facilities and finally to your customer.
The answers, although sometimes nuanced, are out there. Investing in robotics can be perceived as a significant task, but much faster and more straightforward than you may have thought.
If you are new to robotics, you’ll need to create precise and complete specifications to ensure a successful project. Thinking through the essential requirements and capabilities required is an excellent place to start.
Finding the right robotics company to partner with — choosing an experienced and reputable partner — will be very important.
So, will automating your warehouse with robots give you that edge?
We’re including a list of questions and considerations to help define your robotics investigation and any subsequent project, as well as some points to consider when looking at which robotics partner will help you achieve your goals.
Our advice is to consider the following criteria and the conditions to look for within your distribution center/warehouse environment:
• How quickly can robots be set up and deployed?
• How do robots know where to go?
• How much work can robots perform in your warehouse? The use of robots doesn’t necessarily come down to one of robots or humans.
• Know your floor. A floor is, for the most part, flat, but what about those tiny imperfections and irregularities that could cause a robot to go off track?
• What are my platform dimensions? The footprint of your robot is critical so it will fit in the space where you intend to use it.
• What is my payload? Payload is a crucial element of your robotics project. The amount of weight your platform needs to carry impacts other factors such as speed, acceleration, size and platform weight.
• What is my required speed? Depending on your project and objectives, the required speed will vary.
• What ground clearances will a robot need? Will it need to maneuver over or under obstacles easily?
• What is my desired maneuverability? A mobile robot must have the capability to maneuver in your intended environment.
• What is my battery technology? Lithium-ion batteries combined with advanced sensing allow for more efficient energy use leading to longer battery life.
• What is my propulsion system? A lot to learn about here.
• What are my desired navigation capabilities? There are several basic types of navigation available.
• What is my control software? Depending on the application of your project, and the amount of customization, you may need access to the operating system of your robotics platform.
• Will I need extras or add-ons? You may have to consider configuration add-ons that you plan on using for your robot. This can affect the weight of the overall platform, which will impact motor power and battery capacity.
• What is my timeline? Make sure your timeline is realistic, but keep in mind that an experienced robotics engineering team can help accomplish your goals faster.
• How do I choose a robotics company and how will it help me determine a potential ROI? This last question may be the most important you will ask.