The Association for Advancing Automation hosted the Autonomous Mobile Robots & Logistics Week (Co-located with the Vision Show), October 10-13. I was able to attend for a day due to my proximity to the Boston conference center in which it was held. Especially informative and relevant to me was the roundtable discussion – Productization and Scaling for Next Generation Automation. My colleagues and I often write about market adoption of logistics technologies and mention market behaviors that provide insights into the maturity, adoption, and role of the various technologies along a lifecycle. I believe that the terms in title of this session “productization and scaling” capture the current stage of warehouse robotics adoption and identify where productive efforts should be focused – scaling, deployment, improvement, and replication.
A Panel of Experts on Productization and Scaling
The roundtable discussion included four panelists – Trevor Barcelo from Cambridge Consultants, Samir Menon of Dexterity, Denise Stafford from KUKA Robotics, and Carl Doeksen from 3M. These four panelists came to the discussion with complementary backgrounds including independent consultant, artificial intelligence start-up CEO, large-robotics provider executive, and end-user responsible for overseeing robotics adoption across the organization.
Impediments and Pathways to Next Generation Automation Solutions
The panelists provided their perspectives on what is holding back the next generation of automation solutions, and what approaches would enable the process to evolve at a proper pace. Their responses took into consideration the entire ecosystem – automation providers, consulting partners, and end-user organizational challenges, departmental involvement, and adoption processes. Trevor Barcelo @CambConsultants addressed the topic of organizational change management, a topic that is overlooked all too often. He stated further that organizational change management is extremely important, as is the development of an automation road map that is well-aligned with the company’s requirements.
Samir Menon @DexterityRobots provided insights from the perspective of a technology provider. Once a technology has evolved from a proven prototype into the production phase, it is critical for providers to shift to a customer-centric approach, understanding the customer’s problems, addressing those in the order in which you can solve them effectively, make sure you can drive value at a certain price point, then work on efficiencies. Find the hot spots, get buy-in from the customers, create the context with the right expectations, take risks, and continuously improve and scale.
Denise Stafford @KUKAGlobal communicated the importance of including the people doing the work most closely with the robotic automation. Receiving input from these front-line workers will provide a better understanding of how the work is being done – down to the details that can determine an automation project’s success. Doing so is also likely to increase front-line worker acceptance of the automation and support a positive outlook toward the work environment changes.
Practical Approaches to Adopting Robotic Automation
The discussion on practical approaches to robotic adoption was prefaced by the statement that “start small” is a frequently mentioned best practice. But this best practice was followed with the complication of recent events, asking “have priorities and approaches changed now that supply chain disruptions and supply shortages are so heightened?” Carl Doeksen noted that @3M has 240 factories worldwide, but they also have large distribution centers (DCs). The large DCs tend to be cautious about automation projects due to the large scale and long time-frames to complete the technology integrations. These project characteristics often increase the risk of DC projects to a level above the company’s tolerance. Therefore, select areas of plant operations are a better introduction point for automation trials. Also, when evaluating an automation project, Carl cautioned practitioners to look at factor beyond labor costs, such as quality measurements and process reengineering potential. Finally, the addition of next generation automation can also deliver human resource benefits due to the creation of a more interesting and desirable work environment that can deliver valuable work experience to staff.
Samir added that robotics can be utilized as a means of de-risking the environment due to its ability to serve as a more flexible alternative to more traditional “bolted down” automation. This flexibility aspect is a common driver for modern flexible automation adoption (providing what is known in the financial world as “real options” as I described in Flexible Automation Enables Resilient Operations). Samir’s perspective was –give me a corner of your plant and I will show you value that can be replicated.