What’s the operational and strategic value of robotics? This question is more important now than ever, as businesses look to robotics to overcome labor challenges and increase operational flexibility.
Flexibility is a strategic concept summarizing the elasticity a warehouse needs to adapt to market changes and skyrocketing consumer expectations. Helping to address flexibility in the warehouse is the newer robotics market for autonomous mobile robots (AMR). This technology is extending the capabilities of warehouses, people, and technology on a daily basis. Driven in part by labor challenges, which are nothing new, AMRs are helping to fill the void left as the existing workforce continues to age and the emerging labor pool finds supply chain less desirable. Today’s warehouse managers operate with an excess of boots to fill and not enough feet to put in them, and with expectations of higher wages, bigger bonuses, and other incentives. Yet, with AMRs you only need to deploy them and watch them go—like the old-school mechanized robots we used to watch waddle across the living room (but much, much better)—while improving quality of life for the supply chain worker by reducing walking distance and other taxing (and unexciting) elements of the work day.
It is easy to understand the utilization and need of robotics within DCs. But, can they deliver value beyond the four walls; beyond the immediate task? Throughput, cost per unit, and efficiency, are the key benefits right? The impact of robotics within the warehouse can be quantified, no doubt. But, why stop there? I would challenge you to look deeper—beyond the four walls of the distribution center. Let’s consider for a moment the potential impact spreading upstream and downstream from the warehouse.
(To be clear, we’re focusing on warehouse robotics, specifically AMRs and modern AGV’s. We are NOT considering drones and other technologies working in shipment yards, transportation, etc.)
How Can Robotics Reveal More About Your Operations?
A warehouse management system (WMS) captures plenty of operational data. However, there are dark spots in the capture points—even if you have real-time data fed into your WMS. Manual operations, for example, can create these blips in operational visibility. After a picker scans a box, you can assume it’s on the way to packaging, but that unit has gone dark until it’s scanned at the staging area.
With AMRs, the robots create continuous signals while moving about the warehouse. Many robotics providers have a robotics management system similar to automation’s warehouse control system (WCS), which collects and shares the data to other systems (such as the WMS). This additional information layer improves traceability for inventory in motion, and visibility occurs in truer real time. Knowing the when, where, how, and path of in-transit and at-rest inventory provided by robotics produces a clearer understanding of inventory whereabouts and velocity of fulfillment.
Now that we have an idea for the granularity of control within the warehouse achieved through robotics, let’s consider how this may impact your partners, suppliers, customers, and overall supply chain operations.
Upstream Value of Warehouse Robotics
How can robotics inside the DC improve supply chain operations occurring before the distribution center is involved? It’s all about the data. Consider demand planning as an example. Suppliers and manufacturers require data in order to properly resupply and stock the warehouse. It’s not beyond reason to see the upside of true end-to-end inventory traceability here.
Yes, the data is available in an ERP or WMS at some point. However, consider the traceability standards third-party logistic (3PL) companies face. A 3PL’s customer may require tight, exact inventory location feedback. Government contracts and municipalities may want the tightest SLAs possible, and this level of granularity could be a real differentiator in the 3PL market on top of the productivity robotic technologies offer. The food and beverage industry is another example. Concerns for cold storage, shelf life, and spoilage could warrant the higher levels of traceability and inventory awareness offered through robotics.
Order cancellations also create unique challenges that could be solved with truer package visibility. How many times has a cancelled order left the DC, only to be returned later (or given away for free to the customer)? Reverse logistics and restocking can create extra work and hassle in the warehouse, and that item may need to be discounted as a used product. However, if robotics connected to the WMS recognize that cancellation while in-transit, you have just sidestepped all the headaches noted above. Other order changes, such as escalated high-priority orders, could similarly benefit from immediate knowledge of inventory location.
Furthermore, what about considering robotics within the labor management system (LMS). Can such alignment extend to inbound shipments and accelerate the ability to orchestrate and offload inbound shipments, as if robots were a part of the labor strategy? If so, how valuable can this be to transportation providers to accelerate the time it takes to offload trucks and to reduce dwell time waiting at the dock for resources? The digital nature of modern AMRs make such scenarios a realistic goal for operators.
Downstream Value of Warehouse Robotics
For operations downstream of the warehouse, there is an almost equal and opposite scenario compared to upstream benefits. Continuous connectivity back to the WMS and other supply chain systems can improve movement planning, for example. A greater sense of throughput velocity can help with transportation planning, ensuring truck availability at loading bays.
A constant feedback loop from robotics can also help circumvent aisle congestion and other issues—leading to faster remediation and smoother fulfillment. These capabilities could prove useful when executing in one or two-day delivery windows.
You can’t get much more downstream than the final recipient. Consumers can watch their package move in real-time from rack to packing to truck to doorstep. Consider how an online retailer can build better relationships in direct-to-consumer models by providing package status updates at any given time. This can also build confidence in a 3PL’s ability to execute on SLAs. For retailers, this level of visibility can help with drop shipping or better controlling inventory for store shelves.
Finally, the impact of real-time visibility of inventory in motion, even within the warehouse, can have a drastic effect on inventory management. By not losing ‘sight’ of inventory throughout the fulfillment process, the end-to-end supply chain is better equipped to drive often sought after improvements to inventory levels and inventory positioning. Better management of inventory leads to better customer service, which is the ultimate downstream impact.
Robotics and the Supply Chain of the Future
Today, we’re mostly considering the value of robotics in terms of warehouse productivity and the movement of units. Labor constraints and the hand-over-fist nature of most industries push us towards these solutions as pure necessity. The thought process in this article is hypothetical—we aren’t thinking in these terms of applicability yet. But, I ask, why not? The impetus is on the innovators in warehouse operations and supply chain management to optimize their use of modern technology, and these points of value lead to the notion of extending the value of robotics in the warehouse beyond the task.
Building the case for deeper value behind robotics as not just an operational tool, but a strategic advantage, can help set your business apart from the pack. The competitive advantage of the added traceability adds to delivery confidence that your customers can bank on. The added visibility into operations helps supplier planning and efficiency. A higher degree of inventory visibility opens the door to additional process improvement and control.
We’re living in a truly transformational time in supply chain. If we look beyond immediate needs, there are infinite opportunities to build additional value into robotics and the other tools at our disposal.
Sean Elliott serves as Chief Technology Officer for HighJump. A 15-year technology veteran, Elliott has been the principal architect of the HighJump One platform and the technological convergence strategy at HighJump. Earlier in his career, Elliott served within the architecture group at Infor, where he focused on distribution-centric supply chain. He has a passion for bringing leading edge mobility technologies to the supply chain, and enhancing end-user experience within the HighJump customer community.