So, what is it all about? When the time between your customer’s buy action and your dock or delivery is measured in hours, there’s no time to spare. The supply chain rarely sleeps. Neither do robots (‘Bots’).
Mobile robots speed material flow to order fulfillment bin locations and between other distribution processes. They boost throughput, cut picking and put-away errors. They can help consolidate storage space and future-proof your distribution operations. Bots offset rising labor costs and labor shortages, a significant challenge and the primary driver of rising ‘bot’ deployment. They improve ergonomics and make better use of your workforce.
Back in 2012 when Amazon bought Kiva Systems, formerly Amazon’s robotics supplier, they gained a competitive advantage with robotics. At the time, some argued that Amazon’s Kiva acquisition would set the industry back by removing the technology from the market, while others argued that the move would spur more innovation. The latter is precisely what happened. Bot technologies are now rapidly multiplying for distribution intralogistics.
The leading technology employed is based on GPS, just like in your car. The bot’s brain can be mapped, as to product location and desired order fulfillment product flow; and, by using various sensors, it avoids and steers around unexpected obstacles. It autonomously determines the best routes or path to take to get from point A to point B, with real-time intelligence. Think of it this way: sensors make the bot perceptive; algorithms make them smart.
What’s happening out there in the distribution universe? There is an attempt to close the loop and automate the flow of product and materials, in and out of distribution facilities. It’s gaining ground thanks to a bunch of established suppliers and new start-ups rushing to fill in and offer their solutions.
You need to keep a heads up on these developments. I can already see (and I’ve said this many times), the employment of bots will not be just for the big guys. It’s no longer a premature science offering bells and whistles, or a “wow factor.” Bots will become a “make-or-break” competitive advantage.
The new reality is coming
Initially, and most probably in your type of wholesale-distribution operations, bots will primarily be used to reduce the distances that warehouse personnel must walk to receive and store product away. Also, bots will be used to transport product from one picking workstation to another, then onto a dock and or truck loading operation.
Think about how much time is spent by people just moving product around. In a traditional warehouse/DC environment, it’s not unreasonable to expect that up to 70 percent of a person’s time is spent walking, and as little as 30 percent of the time on physically putting away or picking transaction. It’s dramatic!
Our research conducted over the past several months, including with current robotics suppliers and companies open to “selective pilot collaboration research,”** indicates a significant focus is to understand what is happening from a materials/product transfer flow process within your warehouse or DC - and its impact on potential bot utilization.
Why? The initial focus of robotics suppliers has often been on “piece picking” and “third-party logistics (3PL) fulfillment operations. A typical wholesale distributor, in contrast, in the industrial supply arena often has carton quantities to pick, higher-cube products and products that are relatively heavy. Not all suppliers are yet offering a broader array of bots to accommodate these product characteristics. But, I see development and movement coming rapidly as suppliers attempt to expand their market reach.
There is an investment required, but there is also an ongoing running cost of operation factor. The investment will vary depending on the size of your operations, speed-of-flow gains, and the robotics impact on numbers of people. It’s what increasing throughput and speed-of-flow does!
I suggest that generally, a facility with a minimum of approximately 50,000 square feet can be a target for robotics in their distribution operations. We are already seeing costs come down, mainly as more suppliers offer bot lease/rental options versus outright purchase.
Bots inside your warehouse or DC, every day? It could be here already!
** - Let us know if you have interest in qualifying for our “Bot Pilot - Collaboration Research.”