By Rob Sullivan, President, AutoGuide Mobile Robots
The next evolution of industrial robots is here and they are autonomous. Traditionally manned forklifts have been used to transport materials.
The first step into autonomy was automated guided vehicles (AGVs), which require substantial infrastructure to be useful. We now have a new generation of industrial vehicles – autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).
They are fully autonomous and guided by natural features already present in a facility. They require very little effort to deploy so bringing them into your operation is not as hard as you might think.
With a few key pieces of information, you can understand how AMRs can transform your operation and what steps you’ll need to take to make this a reality.
AMRs Make Sense. Here’s Why…
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, forklifts caused 85 work-related deaths and 7,940 nonfatal injuries in 2018 alone.
Manned forklifts are dangerous because drivers can’t always see what’s in front of them, and the repetitive tasks they perform every day only increase the likelihood of accidents.
Deploying autonomous solutions allows low value tasks to be performed by AMRs, freeing up people for high value jobs that require ingenuity and materially impact the operation’s bottom line.
It’s All About Efficiency
With autonomous mobile robots, an operation can reduce operating costs while increasing throughput efficiency. What would take a manned forklift 6-8 trips can be accomplished with one trip using a single autonomous tugger with 3-4 trailers.
In a manufacturing environment, the time savings alone can be immense. An autonomous tugger can be deployed to address specific bottlenecks – for example, reducing wait times for moving finished goods out of the manufacturing area or delivering raw materials to a manufacturing line as part of their normal routes.
With targeted deployment, AMRs can deliver significant cost savings, operational efficiencies and increased productivity. Imagine having a round-the-clock operation with minimal management and at a much lower cost than traditional methods.
In a facility that requires 200 miles of manned forklift trips per day, using an autonomous tugger instead reduces the miles driven to 30-40.
Fewer vehicles on the floor at any one time means less traffic congestion, which naturally lowers the likelihood of accidents. Additionally, autonomous robots include a number of sensors and safety features to further reduce risk.
They can even be fitted with custom sensors, that account for a load’s height, length and width. With this information, the AMR chooses an appropriate path to ensure product is not damaged as it travels through the warehouse.
The ABCs of ROI
While these benefits make sense at a high level, a simple return on investment calculation can quickly prove this out. The first step is to understand your labor costs. Not just salary but also insurance, vacation pay and other non-salary benefits.
This is referred to as your fully burdened labor cost and should be calculated on a per position or per person basis. The next step is to identify which tasks are best suited for autonomous mobile robots.
You can then calculate the operational efficiency and cost reductions that can be achieve by deploying autonomous solutions in your facility.
Which Robot is the Right Robot?
So what is the right application to begin with? It likely depends on the industry you’re in. Warehouses often require large amounts of materials to be moved over long distances.
Autonomous tuggers are well-suited for this task. They can be fitted with standard or custom trailers based on your specific needs and carry far more materials in a single trip than a forklift.
In high-bay warehouses, an autonomous high bay forklift can be used to store pallets at different tiers in high bay racking systems. Accompanying software can be used to keep track of the exact location of those pallets so retrieval is simple and accurate when the time comes.
In manufacturing environments, autonomous pallet stackers can load autonomous tuggers with raw materials to be delivered line-side on a just-in-time basis. Autonomous tuggers can also deliver finished goods to the warehouse or shipping area, where autonomous pallet stackers can unload them.
Start Small and Grow
How do you get started when you’ve never deployed an autonomous solution? By keeping it simple. Start with the tasks where it’s easy to see the inefficiencies – repetitive tasks and places where bottlenecks occur – then develop a pilot that allows you to test your hypothesis.
With a small pilot, you can gain a deeper understanding of the ROI and learn the benefits of AMRs while minimizing the impact to your organization. You can then expand and work your way through new applications, learning not only to mimic manual operations but to increase efficiency using the unique capabilities of AMRs.
Grading Autonomous Systems
Natural Feature Navigation
There are a few things you should look for when evaluating autonomous systems. A truly autonomous solution will require very little in the way of infrastructure changes.
The system should use the natural features of your facility – walls, columns, doorways and other fixed assets – to obtain the necessary information to easily and effectively navigate your operation. No barcodes, wires, magnetic tape or reflectors should be required.
Getting A Charge
AMRs use stored energy batteries, typically lead acid or lithium ion, which of course need to be charged. A well-designed AMR system will include in-mission/opportunity charging capabilities.
This means that in-floor charging plates are installed in places where the AMR makes stops during the course of its workflow, for instance when it is queuing up for work or when a load transfer is happening.
With opportunity charging, the AMRs don’t have to be taken out of commission to charge and are able to run continuously.
Software That Plays Well With Others
Software plays a large role in AMR solutions. Coordinating the movements of the fleet of AMRs is just the first step to creating an efficient system.
In addition to AMR fleet control software, you also need to consider how the AMR solution integrates with your existing systems, such as a warehouse management system (WMS) or manufacturing execution system (MES).
A complete AMR solution will easily interface with your current infrastructure to create a seamless transition from WMS order information to AMR pallet picking and placing.
Flexibility Isn’t Just For Yoga
Lastly, be sure to understand the design and capabilities of the AMRs you’re considering. Some AMRs are manual vehicles with autonomous kits bolted on.
A true AMR will be built from the ground up to be an autonomous – conceived of and designed to be an AMR from its inception. Some AMRs, like AutoGuide’s, are also modular.
Purpose-built adapters are added on to a base AMR to enable the robot to become a pallet stacker, tugger or high bay. These adapters can be changed out according to evolving workflows or seasonality, adapting to your business needs in real-time.
Start Your AMR Journey Today
A common misconception is that deploying AMRs is time consuming and difficult. In reality, most operations can be up and running in a matter of weeks.
By starting with a pilot, you can evaluate your own processes to identify inefficiencies, while simultaneously observing the AMR system in a real-life application or even your production environment.
You’ll quickly understand the value of AMRs, their immediate impact on your operation and ultimately the efficiencies they bring that materially affect your business profitability.
For a more in-depth look at these topics, view a recording of the AutoGuide Mobile Robots Webinar: The Five Things You Must Know Before Bringing AMRs Into Your Operation. And register for our next webinar Mobile Robot Safety: Risks, Responsibilities and ROI.
Main image: AutoGuide Mobile Robots MAX-N Base AMR