5 Ways to Improve Warehouse Operations with Autonomous Mobile Robots
By John Santagate
The market for autonomous mobile robots has proven to be quite dynamic. The barriers to entry are rather low from a product development perspective, but the barriers to success are quite high. For this reason, experts expect that the warehouse landscape will look significantly different in the near future as more companies overcome these barriers.
Today, this market is made up of robots that can autonomously navigate a warehouse; transport a variety of payloads; and be aligned with business applications, such as warehouse management and warehouse execution systems, that are responsible for orchestrating the movement of materials. And although warehouses come in different shapes and sizes and have varying purposes, all of them have some requirement of material movement, which makes autonomous mobile robots a key asset for any warehouse.
Here are five ways autonomous mobile robots can help improve warehouse operations.
- Autonomous mobile robots help close labor gaps. The worldwide market for warehousing space is in a period of healthy growth as demand for goods and services worldwide increases because of global population growth and strong economies in major markets. However, the labor markets in the United States, Japan, China and many parts of Europe cannot keep up with this growth. This is one of the driving forces behind the push to automate warehouse operations. The use of autonomous mobile robots enables warehouse operations to scale on demand; redeploy human workers to more valuable tasks; and reduce the risk related to reliance on short-term, seasonal labor.
- Autonomous mobile robots help improve warehouse safety. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, more than 11 percent of forklifts, which are driven by humans to move materials within a warehouse, will be involved in an accident. With autonomous mobile robots taking on material-handling responsibilities, the amount of forklift accidents can be reduced.
- Autonomous mobile robots reduce human error. Because autonomous mobile robots are not operated by humans, the human error element related to workplace accidents is eliminated. Instead, these robots leverage advanced vision systems and sensors to sense their environments and respond to changes in real time. Plus, they are built under strict safety guidelines and designed specifically with safety in mind.
- Autonomous mobile robots support digital transformations. Many, if not most, organizations are engaged in some degree of digital transformation or modernization efforts. Autonomous mobile robots can provide a mechanism for warehouse managers to autonomously capture data about the movement of materials and inventory utilization. In addition, the option of integrating autonomous mobile robotics technology with operations-level systems, such as warehouse management and warehouse execution systems, can support the alignment between the physical execution of tasks and the digital footprint of the operation.
- Autonomous mobile robots can be implemented without disrupting operations. Many of today’s leading vendors have developed highly flexible systems that can be deployed into an ongoing operation without the need to change the configuration of a facility or engage in infrastructure change. This is especially important for smaller, regional warehouses that typically cannot accommodate operations disruptions but do not have the financial capacity to invest in building out new facilities or implementing full-on automation. Autonomous mobile robots can easily be installed and deployed because they are a type of flexible automation that is not constrained by the layout of a facility, like conveyors or sortation equipment might be.
Keys to successful implementation
For organizations considering utilizing autonomous mobile robots in the warehouse, the following guidance can help to drive strategic decision-making:
- Do your due diligence. Evaluate the state of the market for vendors, and work with a few candidates to understand how they perceive the value proposition, where they have deployed and what level of value has been delivered to their customers.
- Consider autonomous mobile robots as a tool designed to improve the capabilities of your workers. These devices perform a task but do not necessarily do all of the things that your people can do.
- Engage your workforce in the process. There is an understandable concern about the use of robots and the impact on employment. Be upfront with your workers and take their inputs during the early stages of planning.
- When building out your digital transformation or modernization strategy, think about the value of data relative to the physical execution of the tasks within the warehouse operation. Craft a strategy to improve the data footprint through the use of autonomous mobile robots as a data-generation mechanism.
- Start small. You can start with this technology on a small scale and build from an initial deployment, implementing autonomous mobile robots where it makes the most sense.
In addition, you can choose a robot-as-a-service model that reduces the risk associated with using the technology and also improves your ability to dynamically scale your fleet.
- Do not let preconceived notions about the complexity of the technology get in the way of taking action. Overall, this technology is exceptionally user friendly.
John Santagate is a research director at global market intelligence firm IDC where he is responsible for researching the service robotics market.