Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) Come of Age

AMRsLast week, I attended ARC Advisory Group’s Forum in Orlando, FL. The theme of the event was Driving Digital Transformation in Industry and Cities, and focused on how digitizing factories, cities, and infrastructure will benefit technology end users and suppliers alike. Over the course of the week, attendees had the opportunity to attend sessions that covered advanced analytics and machine learning, asset performance management, automation innovations, connected smart machines, cybersecurity and safety, industrial internet platforms, IoT network edge infrastructure and end devices, IT/OT/ET convergence, and smart cities. One of the sessions that I had attended with a supply chain focus was Autonomous Mobile Robots Come of Age.

This session, moderated by ARC’s Steve Banker, brought together speakers from robotics companies as well as end users in the warehouse. The panelists were Tyler Wolfe, Director and Solutions Architect at Framebridge, Alan McDonald, Senior Director of Continuous Improvement at GEODIS, Joe Lau, Director of Product Marketing at Fetch Robotics, and Bruce Welty, Chairman and CEO at Quiet Logistics and former Chairman at Locus Robotics. For reference, GEODIS is a Locus customer and Framebridge is a Fetch customer. As each company has different requirements and warehouse flow paths, flexible solutions are key. Both of these companies saw rapid improvements and benefits once the robots were deployed in the warehouse.

Fetch Robotics AMRs

Framebridge is an e-commerce custom framing company, which allows its customers to upload or mail in artwork or photography to be framed. As such, Framebridge was not looking for a typical warehouse robotic solution of picking items or transporting totes from a pick station to a pack station. Instead, the company was looking at ways to make its employees more productive. As the company grew, it knew it could no longer rely on warehouse employees moving the components of the custom framing process by hand trucks throughout the warehouse. This system meant that workers spent the majority of their time simply moving around the warehouse instead of producing. The Fetch robots would autonomously move the components to the different assembly stations within the warehouse, eliminating the need for employees to move them.

Framebridge looked at multiple companies and systems, including automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). The AGVs did not have the flexibility required, and in some cases, the obstacle avoidance technology was sorely lacking (one vendor actually had their AGVs crash into each other during the demo). With Fetch Robotics, Framebridge got the flexibility it required, which included the ability to move the origin and destination end points and change the pick paths. The robots are also equipped with RFID readers, which enables workers to know exactly where any piece of art is at any time within the warehouse. With the company processing hundreds of pieces of custom artwork, this is incredibly important.

One of the concerns with AMRs is how warehouse workers will interact with the bots. Within a week or two, employees were used to seeing the bots scurrying around the warehouse and were no longer concerned about collisions. The biggest benefit from deploying the robots for Framebridge is the improved productivity of warehouse employees. Tyler Wolfe estimated a 70 percent improvement in indirect time spent by employees moving items around the warehouse. This was due to the elimination of hand truck use to move the assembly components around the warehouse. The company has also seen a dramatic improvement in inventory visibility with the RFID readers; workers can now easily locate exactly where a piece of artwork is in the warehouse. In terms of ROI, between the three solutions it is using, Framebridge saw varied payback timeframes ranging from 3 to 12 months.

Locus Robotics AMRs

GEODIS is a global transportation and logistics firm that has also deployed AMRs within some of its warehouses. The labor shortage for warehouses is what drove the company to explore the use of bots within a warehouse. Alan McDonald pointed out that labor is harder to find today, which makes it more expensive. “Finding labor 10 years ago was significantly easier. Today, we cannot fill every role.” One of the problems in a tight labor market is that people will accept a job but move on to another position either before they officially start or within a week or two. This leads to a lot of wasted money in training costs.

GEODIS sees its use of Locus bots as a way to bridge the training gap and help to retain employees. The Locus robots move to the shelf where the pick is going to be; the worker sees the robot, picks and scans the item, and puts the item in the tote that the robot carries. GEODIS can also optimize the use of bots; if there are too many bots in a specific area or aisle, they will wait to send the next bot to that area. This eliminates congestion of bots and workers, which helps to improve efficiency.

The ease of use is also a big benefit for GEODIS. At a lot of warehouses, there are many employees who are not native English speakers. The iPad interface on the bot helps to navigate this challenge. The screen will show a picture of the item that needs to be picked, making it easier for employees. The use of the bots has reduced walking times of employees and they no longer need to push a big cart all through the warehouse, which can weigh over 200 pounds by the end of a pick cycle. Since deploying the Locus bots, GEODIS has seen many benefits. In its 3+ facilities, the company has 175 bots. Productivity has doubled, and training time has seen a 50 percent reduction since the deployment. Depending the facility, the payback period has ranged from 6 to 18 months.

Final Thought

Both Framebridge and GEODIS rolled out 90-day pilot programs. By the end of the 90 days, both companies were seeing results and transitioned directly into a full deployment.

The key for AMRs is that they enable workers to be more productive due to constant collaboration. All four panelists made the point that the bots are not replacing human workers, but rather, are assisting them. Joe Lau made the point that Fetch’s robots are “all about constant collaboration between the picker and the robot. Fetch brings a significant amount of software into the system to make sure they can avoid stationary and dynamic obstacles, as well as gage appropriate speed for navigating the warehouse.” This logic helps the warehouse employee maximize productivity.

The four panelists also mentioned that warehouse labor is becoming harder to find and more expensive to train and retain. As Bruce Welty pointed out, “our approach now is that you can’t do this anymore without robots. People are too expensive, and training costs really hurt especially when the people don’t stick around for long. Robots are not eliminating jobs; we can’t find people to take the jobs.” This panel demonstrated just how true that last statement is. Robots will surely become a a bigger component of the warehouse moving forward.

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