February 14, 2022
(Editor’s Note: Robotics-World is proud to present a three-part series about how AMRs are transforming supply chain operations, authored by John Santagate, vice president of robotics at Körber Supply Chain. In Part 1, he discussed the market forces having a huge influence on the rise of autonomous mobile robots in supply chain and fulfillment operations, part 2 looks at why deploying the technology is easier than many think).
Time to value is a key element in determining the value of any project. Organizations will often have competing projects, and many consider time to value in their decision making. The complexity of setting up a new solution clearly is an element in terms of time to value. The longer it takes to operationalize a new system, the longer the time to value.
One of the most common misconceptions around warehouse robotics and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) is that they are incredibly complex and difficult to put into action. While the technology is complex and modern, the implementation and application has shown to be quicker and more efficient than other technology products. Often, the complexity arises around integration with a warehouse management system (WMS) rather than on the operational aspects/deployment of the robots themselves.
The perception of AMRs as complex and time-consuming is rooted in the idea that they are automation technology, and automation projects typically come with a big budget and long timeline. But one of the key drivers of the adoption of AMRs is that they enable flexible automation in ways that are affordable and attainable for organizations of all sizes. AMR technology is a step along the automation evolution by enabling autonomous mobility without the time-consuming efforts characteristic of typical automation projects.
To be fair, there are several approaches and types of AMRs, each with a different set of nuances that impact how they are implemented into a warehousing environment. For example, AMRs can be categorized as collaborative in-aisle robots (also known as person-to-goods or P2G), goods-to-person, flexible platforms, and even autonomous pallet vehicles. For warehouse and fulfillment operations, there is no shortage of AMR technology that can enhance operational performance. Each approach to AMRs comes with a different set of characteristics and timelines for installation.
Regardless of the environment and workflows needed, having a defined and proven methodology for implementation is key to achieve a successful project and rapid time to value. For AMRs, we have found that a five-step approach is effective in delivering success in most cases. This approach brings a rapid transition from interest to value, and has helped guide new users through the process. By following this model, the probability of success and the ability to accelerate deployments can be greatly improved.
Step 1: Identify the need
The first step is one of discovery, meant to establish that an opportunity exists to deploy AMRs in a meaningful way for the operation. With this step you are essentially defining the operational opportunity for the use of AMRs. Questions to ask here include:
- Is there a repetitive workflow that involves movement of material?
- Is there a business reason to look to automate this workflow?
- Will automating this particular workflow solve a problem and improve operations?
With those answers in place and a need established, organizations can move on to the next step in the process.
Step 2: Establish the right fit
The “fit” of a deployment applies to several key elements, including but not limited to: workflow, material characteristics, infrastructure, technology, and culture. Just because you can automate something does not mean that you should. The objective in this step is to determine fitness but also to determine the best fit for your operation. Environments with different processes and materials will have a different fit relative to the solution they choose. For example, a facility that picks individual parcel-sized items (“each picks”) for e-commerce fulfillment will need a different AMR solution than an operation that handles exclusively full pallets or cases.
The key thing with the fit step is to ensure that there is an operational fit for AMR technology.
Step 3: Consider the physical elements of implementation
Next, you need to ensure that the physical location is configured to optimize the use of AMRs. In this stage – assuming physical limitations do not disqualify an AMR system – organizations need to make any required modifications to the physical infrastructure to enable the robots.
For some solutions, this might be as simple as deploying localization markers (such as QR codes) at a handful of key locations. For other deployments, this might need work to grid up the floor with location markers, build up picking modules, or construct dedicated racks. Again, different solutions have different requirements, so it is imperative to map out the installation plan during the early stages of any project.
Step 4: Establish digital alignment
This step can occur in parallel to Step 3, or follow it. During this phase, an organization will integrate the robotics system to the WMS or other execution system. This is where companies will build and annotate the digital map, communications and messaging will be established, and data monitoring capabilities will be configured and turned on.
Keep in mind that in some cases, integration may not even be necessary. Depending on the requirements and workflow, it is possible to have an implementation that takes as little as a few days for a non-integrated, basic point-to-point workflow. The complexity and sophistication of this integration component would be identified and established earlier on, or in steps 1 and 2.
Step 5: Entrenchment
Companies complete the process with entrenchment. The AMR solution has been identified, validated through a fitness assessment, physical elements have been completed, and digital elements have been integrated, making it ready for use. Now is the time to train employees on the new tools, implement the change management policy, and establish a process for ongoing continuous improvement.
This is a brief, high-level description of the proven five-step methodology for AMR project success. Clearly there are more elements of each step, which is why it is important to consider engaging with partners that have a proven history of successful AMR deployments.
While these systems can be quite simple, working with a partner that has a proven methodology will go a long way to ensuring a successful project.
In our next post, we will look at how AMR technology can act as the connective tissue between existing warehouse technologies: “Operational Alignment: The Link Between Existing Warehouse Tech and AMRs”
About the author: John Santagate (right) has spent the last decade helping leading companies design and implement cutting-edge technology based solutions for supply chain applications. He is the vice president of robotics at Körber Supply Chain. Previously he was the Research Director for Robotics at IDC and prior to that he was a management consultant with the Tata Consulting Services Supply Chain Center of Excellence. Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter at @_that_robot_guy.