Rob Sullivan, President, AutoGuide Mobile Robots
For a more in-depth look at autonomous solutions, register for AutoGuide Mobile Robots webinar on Jan 14, 2021 04:00 PM: Introducing Autonomous Storage and Retrieval For All
As deployment times quicken and significant efficiency gains are realized, the pace of automation adoption is accelerating.
According to a recent McKinsey study, 30% having fully automated one or more business operations processes, with 59% of respondents having piloted automation for at least one function or business unit(1).
With numerous applications, crossing several verticals, automation has become an integral part of improving operational efficiency, driving down costs and improving margins.
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), fully autonomous vehicles guided by sensors that use the natural features of a facility to navigate, deliver one of the most clear-cut justifications for automating a facility with a quick return on investment.
Conceptualizing how you can deploy automation in your operation requires an understanding of the tasks which most lend themselves to being automated, which can vary by industry. Let’s look at a couple of use cases in different operational environments.
Manufacturing facilities are full of repetitive, dangerous tasks that can, and should, be automated. Utilizing collaborative robots (cobots) on the assembly line is often an operation’s first foray into automation and can have significant business impact.
What is often overlooked is the fact that much of the business revolves around moving materials in a facility – traditionally a completely manual task.
Forklifts move pallets of material from finished goods to warehousing or shipping; or raw materials to assembly lines for re-stocking. To be moved, all materials must be touched by a manually-driven forklift, which in and of itself, is dangerous. Every year one third of the deaths caused by workplace accidents in the EU are related to transport(2).
But consider if those materials were hauled by safe and accurate high-payload autonomous tuggers capable of moving the equivalent of 6-8 forklift trips in a single run. Take a look at a real-life operation doing this today.
A Tier 1 Automotive manufacturer needed materials delivered to one of their manufacturing lines to refill raw materials supplies on a just-in-time basis.
To improve safety without affecting product operations, a fork-free safety initiative within the company prompted a switch from manually driven forklifts to autonomous tuggers with trailers to haul these materials.
This manufacturer integrated tuggers with their conveyor system to deliver lineside supplies on a just-in-time basis. When inventory on a conveyor reaches a predefined level, sensors alert fleet control software to dispatch a tugger to refill the supply.
Once the tugger arrives at the consumption point, the software notifies the automatic trailers to deliver materials to the conveyor and load empty containers back onto the trailers via their own powered conveyor system.
Once the exchange is complete, the vehicle is dispatched back to the pickup point where automatic trailers and conveyors exchange empty containers for full containers and the tugger is sent to charge while it waits for the next low-parts signal.
In one trip, a single AMR tugger carries what it typically takes two manned forklift trips to transport, which adds up substantially over the course of a typical day. This manufacturer was able to move two team members in two shifts to higher value tasks, while maintaining just-in-time lineside supply delivery and their 95% uptime goal.
For more a more in-depth look at autonomous solutions, register for AutoGuide Mobile Robots webinar: Introducing Autonomous Storage and Retrieval For All
Warehousing & Distribution Operations
To maintain efficient operations, warehouses and distribution centers require quick, accurate and safe material transport and storage – that’s the essence of the business. As product travels from dock to stock and back again, there are any number of ways things could go awry.
Product can be damaged as it moves through the warehouse on manually driven forklifts because drivers can’t see around the loads they’re hauling. Human error when tabulating and logging product leads to inventory inaccuracies, misplaced product and general warehouse inefficiency.
Safety can be compromised when material transport vehicles have to interact with foot traffic on the warehouse floor. All of these issues can be greatly reduced, if not eliminated, with autonomous solutions.
For example, when product comes in at the dock, an autonomous forklift can load pallets onto an autonomous tugger with multiple trailers, which can haul 6-8 pallets at a time to the warehousing area.
Once it arrives, an autonomous high bay forklift can unload the pallets from the tugger for storage in high bay racks.
All of this is managed by fleet control software, which orchestrates the movement of AMR traffic, defining the most efficient route for each job. If an obstacle impedes the journey, a safe backup path is dynamically identified and the robot can proceed with its task.
Advanced software systems include inventory management capabilities that can connect to your existing warehouse management system (WMS) and inventory systems, to manage precise, by-the-book putaway of incoming materials based on expiration dates, expected storage duration, and other variables to meet your unique facility requirements.
An autonomous end to end system achieves what traditional automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) deliver, at a fraction of the cost and footprint. Innovative solutions such as this allow operations of all sizes to take advantage of automated storage and retrieval functionality, utilizing their existing pallets and racks, with a feasible ROI.
They eliminate human error in putaway, retrieval, and shipping operations – along with wasted time and fines.
Long Haul Tugging: A Real World Case Study
A great example of the real-world efficiencies autonomous robots offer is found in a global manufacturer of outdoor power tools that planned to streamline operations by building an onsite distribution center.
Finished goods once transported a mere 100 feet from the manufacturing line to shipping would now need to move more than three quarters of a mile for warehousing.
The team estimated they would need to triple the size of their forklift fleet and hire several new operators. An autonomous tugging solution would eliminate the need for additional forklifts and headcount, and even enable after-hours material transport.
High-capacity autonomous tuggers, each carrying a four-trailer train, were used to automate time-consuming tows and minimize trips. Each tugger trip transports up to 8 pallets – and 10,000 pounds – of finished goods.
Total miles traveled each day is 30-40, compared to the 200+ miles required for manual forklifts to transport the same payload 1,000 pounds at a time.
Adding value to the deployment, as the autonomous tuggers transport the finished goods, they also make stops for on-demand delivery of raw materials to lineside team members.
The tuggers tow custom trailers that feature built-in carts so team members can wheel raw materials from end-of-aisle delivery zones to the work cell, as the tugger continues on to the warehouse for storage of the finished goods.
The Right Application Delivers Immediate Results
Automation has become more accessible. Just as the mainframe computer was supplanted by the PC so too have automation solutions requiring vast amounts of warehouse floor space been replaced with robots that can operate in a facility’s existing environment without significant infrastructure changes.
Due to technology advances and innovative designs where robots can be repurposed for multiple tasks, the total operating cost of autonomous robots has made them not just feasible, but desirable for operations of all sizes. Even small to medium-sized warehouses can benefit from deploying automation.
When you evaluate the increased productivity and safety of autonomous solutions, and the positive impact on personnel as they move to higher value tasks that take advantage of human ingenuity, the value of automating your facility becomes immediately apparent.
For more a more in-depth look at these topics, register for AutoGuide Mobile Robots webinar: Introducing Autonomous Storage and Retrieval For All
(1) McKinsey. (February 2019). Driving impact at scale from Automation and AI.
(2) Eurostat. (2000). Accidents at work in the EU in 1996, Statistics in Focus, Theme 3-4/2000.