Let’s examine some of the success factors which, I believe, make perfect sense to consider in this new world of ours. Ultimately, I believe they will become the success factors for human-robot collaboration.
Steady demand growth, labor shortages, supply-chain congestion and rising costs are testing distribution facility capabilities. Distribution-focused operations are now furiously seeking to automate more of their workflow operations and reduce the transaction costs of labor and time associated with them.
Robotics is evolving faster than ever, expanding the role of automation in key warehouse processes. And I see it expanding to smaller companies, too. It’s similar to what happened when distributors were driven by e-commerce. Website technology became democratized to the extent that the websites of the smaller guys looked similar to those of the bigger guys.
Now, we are seeing affordable goods-to-person or robots-to-goods technologies within reach of smaller to mid-sized companies.
Because autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) now offer even more flexible options for boosting the productivity and accuracy of current warehouse associates, they economize a worker’s time. They also can cut costs, incentivize employees and even improve health and safety protocols.
In addition, robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) options — rather than up-front capital expenditures — provide an opportunity to minimize capital expenses that are typically encountered in the implementation of new technology.
1. Reinventing Your Workflows
Well-planned workflow execution requires more than just integration with existing warehouse, inventory and order management systems. It requires planning, logic and the smarts to automate the sequence and allocation of work for processes such as picking, receiving, put-away, bin replenishment, and other warehouse transactions such as returns or other value-added processing requirements.
Yes, we need to integrate the AMR capability with the slotting methods employed with high-velocity pick zones, and using batch, zone and wave picking methodologies to encourage goods-to-person workflows that eliminate workers having to walk everywhere.
Think about warehouse employees in receiving having to deadhead — put away product in storage locations. They would typically end up walking or driving a forklift back to the receiving area empty.
2. Distribution of Labor
Getting the division of labor right between humans and robots is critical to achieving the efficiencies needed to make the robotics return-on-investment calculation. In other words, ensuring that the economics of it all works out.
Labor, mainly picking, typically accounts for 60 percent to 70 percent of operating costs in warehouses and distribution centers, while travel time throughout the facilities can eat up 20 percent to 40 percent of a typical work shift. Getting the division of labor right in that environment, AMRs present an opportunity to add value — they can carry large loads and travel long distances without tiring.
Add to that the newest innovations where, for instance, you can build pallets of product and use the AMRs to transport those pallets to a final inbound or outbound destination; some AMRs can carry up to 3,000 lb. This reduces the travel time of a warehouse associate, thereby optimizing the picking or put-away process and a warehouse associate’s time.
AMRs can handle:
Bulk material movement;
Piece, carton and pallet picking, receiving and put-away; reducing or eliminating fixed infrastructure such as conveyors;
Bulky or otherwise awkward products (nonconveyable products);
Offsetting the potential risks if a portion of the workforce is out sick. AMRs encourage social distancing.
One other major attribute that we shouldn’t dismiss has to do with extending the life of older warehouses — increasing their throughput — revitalizing and enabling newer, more efficient approaches to warehouse workflows with minimum disruption.
So, the major labor distribution impact of these changes, which now can become a reality, is about deploying the AMRs and warehouse associates to work collaboratively with one another.
However, remember that the job of the AMR is to optimize order processing priority, the sequence of processing and the system-directed path it will take through the warehouse/distribution center (DC) in response to open order fulfillment requirements.
It’s wise to look at any scenario where things are moving — that’s an opportunity for an AMR. It isn’t about replacing the labor force as much as it’s increasing the productivity of the process.
That major change factor then becomes one of allowing warehouse associates to “cluster” in zones or at specific workstations. This allows them to focus on the work required, the real value-added activities — such as the judgment and dexterity needed to pick, sort, consolidate and pack orders. Again, this involves both inbound and outbound transactions, whatever the activities.
Now, despite what I happen to think is the conceptual simplicity that AMRs offer, introducing them into the warehouse/DC requires a thorough internal review of your operations.
Yes, there needs to be thoughtful planning; it will, most likely, require some changes to warehouse configuration and processes. I find that what may often initially be perceived as a long payback period or anticipated reconfiguration difficulties gets in the way — and will sometimes cause initial hesitation.
However, AMRs have opened up entirely new use cases that can be found and applied to traditional distribution’s warehouse operations.
Ultimately, the question becomes, “What’s the business case?” What’s the ROI potential, the bottom line, particularly as it relates to affordability versus time? So, I suggest you think of AMRs as productivity multipliers.
3. Attracting/Retaining Workers
The difficulties in finding enough warehouse labor may make at least some use of robotics a foregone conclusion for many operations. For some, it could be a fairly rapid return on investment (ROI).
Despite higher wages and other incentives, such as signing bonuses, job seekers — notably younger workers — aren’t biting as we might expect. Older workers, for their own and sometimes obvious reasons, shun such work. In this tight labor market, there may be other alternatives for them that they view as preferential.
Shifts are long, up to 10 hours. Pay is structured around a base salary and perhaps some incentives. Injuries from repetitive reaching, lifting, handling and equipment-related accidents are a natural concern. Keep in mind that a typical picker walks eight or more miles each shift. Much of that is unnecessary travel, such as those deadhead moves I described previously.
A tech-centered warehouse or DC creates a different and more attractive work environment. Many employment candidates already have experienced a more tech-savvy environment and acquired the requisite skills to interact with technology. So, as we alluded to earlier, AMRs can be “swarmed” to bring order instructions to warehouse associates who reside in designated zones and use batch, zone or wave-picking strategies to fulfill orders.
The resulting travel reduction helps warehouse associates meet performance and incentive targets while mitigating injuries, sick days and job burnout.
So, AMRs can not only positively affect warehouse functions but also hiring outcomes. I’ve observed that today’s warehouse associates want a chance to work with new technologies. More often than not, they are attuned and receptive to other emerging technologies.
From an employer’s perspective, it raises a whole new set of considerations about the ease of onboarding new employees, their training, space configuration and distribution operations cost impacts.
4. Financial Implications and Flexibility
Of course, there is an intuitive case for warehouse automation, very similar to what you probably experienced when you first considered a warehouse management system.
Build out a solid business case: input and output, how work will be divided among people and machines, the relative time and cost for each shift, potential overtime savings, and how travel time affects service offerings and delivery commitments. In other words, see how it all nets out in terms of ROI and the effectiveness of capabilities.
You must first understand where and how your distribution operation best stands to benefit — understanding is essentially qualifying your operation.
Given the current business uncertainty about the COVID-19 pandemic, rising inflation and your market’s economic growth, senior management may be rightfully wary. Facilities capacity may be tight and we know that labor is in short supply. How much of your customer’s demand has been pulled forward due to product scarcity?
So, options such as robotics-as-a-service (a subscription-based way of procurement) are now particularly attractive as they offer flexibility in strategy course corrections — to scale back or advance investment as better clarity is reached. RaaS provides scalability, flexibility and a more incremental solution to help respond to expected business surges, such as seasonality, or unexpected events, such as COVID, or supply chain problems and resultant buying surges.
Senior managers recognize the opportunity cost of doing nothing as labor shortages and inflation potentially erode margins. It’s why some companies are choosing to begin by testing or piloting basic robotic services, maybe in specific and segregated warehouse areas, then adding AMR units for other warehouse areas and functions as needed, as confidence grows and demand dictates. It’s like a “trying the solution on for size” approach.
This is where you will be looking to your robotics service provider or outside consultants for support and guidance for a longer-term robotics strategy: flexibility of scale, the timing of deploying AMRs, minimizing installation disruption or configuration constraints and optimizing human capital.
So, yes, it does take a bit of courage to break new ground. You can start simple — but just start! Unleash, upgrade and unfurl your company’s key competitive advantages in ways that are fast, have force and are financially prudent.