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Operational Alignment: The Link Between Existing Warehouse Technologies and AMRs

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July 25, 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 Korber 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 took a look at why deploying the technology is easier than many think. Part 3 explores how existing technologies interact with modern mobile robots to add value).

Stepping back to one of the most pressing issues driving investment in automation and modernization technologies is the issue of labor. Labor-related challenges such as scarcity, reliability, and turnover have impacted the decision of warehouse operators to make investments in technology. While the cause of this investment is to offset the problem, it is not meant to blindly replace labor. Investments in AMR technology aims to augment and improve human performance in the process. Granted, this effort does reduce reliance on associates in certain aspects of the process, but it does not replace or eliminate them. Rather, it makes them better and allows the operation to “do more with less”. 

But just dropping in AMRs to an operation – or any other technology for that matter – will not deliver optimal performance. Technology is designed to perform a function. That function is only one aspect of an end-to-end workflow within the four walls of a facility. It is imperative that companies consider the entire workflow when looking to apply technology to solve a problem. By adding technology in one area without considering how it may impact upstream and downstream workflows, companies may end up improving the specific workflow but negatively affect related workflows.

For example, consider an operation that is able to double its pick rate, but it doesn’t make any changes to its packing and shipping operation. The expectation is that the pack/ship process would become the bottleneck. Although the pickers could pick faster, orders would not get out the door any sooner.

This is one example of why it is important to look at the operational process AND the technology involved when conducting process improvement initiatives. Process plus tools is what drives operational performance. Do not understate the importance of the suite of software applications that are in use and the ability of these applications to drive operational efficiency. The purpose of applications such as warehouse, labor, transportation, yard, and order management systems is to enable operational execution but also to do this in a way that delivers on the promise of productivity and operational improvements. 

These foundational tools drive the overall operational processes and data exchange. However, the technology ecosystem for warehouse execution has evolved. We now have more modern physical and digital technologies that are being layered on top of the foundational stack to deliver even further operational enhancements. 

Examples include:

  • Simulation applications that enable the operation to digitally evaluate processes, infrastructure, and resource changes based on the actual operational environment; 
  • Voice tools that target productivity and quality of work; 
  • Flexible automation tools such as AMRs that help target non-value added movement of material. 

By using these tools, warehouses can not only improve operational efficiency, but the data elements let them create a digital thread across various workflows. These tools help to eliminate the gaps in visibility during processes because they are governed by software, and they are connected assets. This connectivity helps allow for the tracking of the end-to-end flow of material, which then enables the identification of operational improvement opportunities. 

Operational performance optimization creates a seamless data flow through software and enables physical processes through modern connected physical assets, such as AMRs. Warehouse operations are essentially an orchestra conducted by an application designed to ensure optimal performance. However, the conductor is the WMS application that communicates with the broader application landscape and issues commands to the technology architecture. This orchestra is made up of the digital and physical technologies that then interact with human workers to ensure an efficient flow of material from receiving to outbound. 

JohnSantagate150pxIf one aspect of the orchestra is out of tune, the whole thing does not quite sound right. Through proper application tuning and alignment to the physical elements, operations are better equipped to deliver on an efficient execution. 

About the author: John Santagate 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.

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