Whitepaper: Execs Reveal What Moves Them from Interest to Action on AMRs for Fulfillment

Whitepaper: Execs Reveal What Moves Them from Interest to Action on AMRs for Fulfillment

5 New Reasons why AMRs are ready for Prime Time

We asked a cross-section of industry influencers, practitioners and executives the question: “What are the barriers to adopting Autonomous Robotic workflows in fulfillment?” and got some fascinating answers. That input helped us create a white paper titled The Amazon Effect & Robotics Adoption in Fulfillment that reveals five perceived barriers that may be keeping you from revolutionizing your fulfillment operations using autonomous mobile robots, along with some insider recommendations on how to mitigate those barriers.

First off, let’s quickly review the value that can be generated by AMRs—robots that work independently of both people and orders:

  • 50% increase in worker efficiency compared to current throughput of cart picking or pick-to-belt scenarios
  • Pick rate increase of more than 3x when 100% independent robots work with pickers
  • Fewer “human touches” results in dramatic increase in picking accuracy and order quality
  • Payback in under 12 months

Given these compelling points, it’s no wonder there’s a wave of interest in robotic piece picking. But if you haven’t yet moved from interest to action, it might be due to one of these five common misperceptions:

  1. Robot technology is risky and unproven at scale

It often takes influential “first movers” to demonstrate the real results that get the rest of the industry going. Of course, distribution centers have been adopting automation and robotics since the invention of the assembly line. Our research shows that a good first step step is to initiate small scale AMR deployments that demonstrate efficacy, then scale up. Happily, AMRs are extremely cost-effective and easy to add incrementally. They can be rolled out with very little impact on existing infrastructure. Companies may start with a small product category or a selected area of the warehouse then scale by phasing in more robots.

  1. Robot-based solutions are expensive

What we found was implementing an AMR solution does not trigger expensive infrastructure reconfigurations, physical plant remodeling, worker retraining, and system integration fees. Instead, labor efficiency drives ROIs that can be measured in months, not years. The cost of AMR is a fraction of the cost of alternative approaches such as, conveyors, and fixed automation. Robots and pickers can work side by side, allowing existing (brown-field) DCs to be quickly and easily retrofitted with no disruption in daily output. The DC can keep fulfilling the core business as AMRs are added, something not possible with conveyor or other fixed automation conversions.

  1. The software hasn’t kept up with robotic hardware

Our conversations revealed that initially, vendors provided robot hardware that required extensive custom software programming to integrate with existing warehouse and order management systems. But today’s next-generation AMR technology optimizes the entire workflow by managing orders, workers and robots independently for the highest level of benefit. Because of advances in the maturity of the solutions, today’s robust, mature, comprehensive software-hardware systems integrate more easily with base systems, are easier to administer, and manage.

  1. Integration to current systems is difficult and risky

Our interviews revealed that some warehouse and fulfillment teams fear that their existing systems will have to be modified to meet the robots’ requirements. This is an understandable fear, but today’s robotic solutions come coupled with a mature software system. The WMS (or equivalent) sends orders and the robotic system sends back completions.  To the WMS, the AMR software is just another picker to send orders to, and that picker sends a notification back when the product has been picked.

  1. Cultural change is a big organizational risk (workers will reject them)

In our experience, AMR technology is a major job satisfaction improver that dramatically reduces stress and physical strain on workers, while raising accuracy. This leads directly to better worker retention.

For some, there is a perception that employees and management are predisposed not to embrace robotics as a worker-friendly productivity booster. The managers we spoke to praise robotic workflows as a way to retain core workers while relying less on temporary and flex help. Reducing touches and the human mistake rates that are inherent to manual systems results in higher productivity, process quality, and fewer unhappy customers. Win-win.

In an era dominated by growing ecommerce demands and shortages of labor, workflows must be transformed. The more execs we talk to, the more we find who consider autonomous mobile robots to be the most significant replenishment power-up available to warehouse teams today. When robots work completely untethered from workers and are independent from the orders being picked, each element can be scheduled and optimized specifically. This is only possible with robots that can pick up and place containers without any worker intervention.

We’ve found that the most common barriers to AMR adoption are largely based on misperceptions that are easily swept aside. Early adopters are finding out how little real risk is involved in adopting game-changing AMR automation. For more about overcoming these five “barriers,” read our whitepaper.

5 Piece-Picking Benefits Only Independent Mobile Robots Can Deliver

5 Piece-Picking Benefits Only Independent Mobile Robots Can Deliver

Contributed by Fred Hajjar, Managing Partner at Weston Supply Chain Consulting

(Dramatic cost savings, yes, but there’s more…)

When supply chain professionals ask the question: “ What are the practical benefits of independent mobile robotics?” they expect to hear the answer “They deliver substantial cost savings.” But the full answer is that adding next-generation robotics to your warehouse also impacts your revenue, competitiveness and growth. In addition to lowering labor expenses and mitigating resource constraints, robots speed up and improve order fulfillment functions in uniquely scalable ways that drive a transformation in cost structure and productivity for accelerating business growth.

So the full answer to the question “What are the benefits of robotics?” encompasses these five facets:

1.      Higher Labor Productivity

The most-cited “go to” benefit by users of distribution center robotics. Labor expense reduction drives ROIs that can be measured in months, not years. Multishift and peak execution approach “first shift” productivity due to the simplification of the picker’s task and general streamlining of the human processes. Independent mobile robotic solutions let pickers pick while the robots do everything else. Early cases show up to 100% increase in labor productivity.

2.      Higher Throughput Capacity

One of the most understated benefits of robotic enabled picking and replenishment.  Without the need for expensive smart conveyors and major infrastructure investments, independent mobile robotic solutions allow manual DCs to be enabled with few infrastructure modifications. The robots and pickers can work side by side, which allows existing DCs to be quickly and easily retrofitted with no disruption in daily output.  Automation can be added in small steps and phased to match growth in demand. This produces higher order fulfillment rates per hour from the existing facility. The DC can keep fulfilling the core business as the adoption is added. This is simply not possible with smart conveyor or other fixed automation conversions.

3.      Capital Cost Reduction:

Traditional methods of expanding picking capacity entail major infrastructure cost. Costs may be incurred for additional DC locations, building expansion, adding conveyor systems, AS/RS systems, new picking mezzanines, and much more.  Independent mobile robotics solutions require significantly less capital cost. In many cases picking to discrete orders eliminates expensive secondary sortation and removes constraints imposed by manual picking and packing activities. Leveraging the robotic workflow produces a rapid-payback, low-capital solution.

4.      Peak and Off-Shift Productivity:

What if you could deploy fewer, better trained workers instead of an army of temps? Non-first-shift activities chronically suffer from lower productivity, staffing difficulties, and high turnover. Independent mobile robotic workflows can ramp up for the peak season with less additional labor, and bring even new workers up to speed more quickly.  The streamlined process delivers a two-fold benefit: lower training time/skills requirements plus increased execution excellence. Both the day shift and the off-shift are made more efficient because as the day shift becomes more productive, off-shift requirements go down.  Higher picker productivity enables shorter shifts. The work is done with fewer resources, more efficiently in less total time.

5.      Revenue Enhancement:

Customers buy more when they get what they want when they want it, at the cost they want to pay. Adopting a next generation robotic workflow impacts revenue and growth directly by supporting higher levels of demand with speedier click-to-door fulfillment and lower costs.  Over the past 5 years delivery expectations have collapsed from 6 days to 1 day (or less). Failing to deliver on those customer expectations consistently results in lost market share and brand damage.

The agile robotic workflow provides more flexibility for market capture/demand shaping activities like flash sales and promotions. By reducing touches, shrinkage and the human mistake rates that are inherent to manual systems, higher peak demand can be met with high process quality, resulting in fewer unhappy customers and returns. Next generation mobile robotic workflows enable you to execute faster while holding margin and quality.

Conclusion:

The benefits of adopting a next generation robotic workflow for picking and replenishment are real and quantifiable.  With these benefits the use of robotics in the warehouse is inevitable.  The onus is on supply chain professionals to get in front of this shift before they are left behind.

Where do you want to be in 5 years?

6 Ways Lean Manufacturing is Enabled by Collaborative Robots

6 Ways Lean Manufacturing is Enabled by Collaborative Robots

The emerging technologies in flexible, collaborative robotics are a synergistic fit for lean manufacturing.

Traditionally, lean manufacturing environments have eschewed technology in favor of simple visual systems and flexible processes.  A new generation of smarter, faster and lower cost robots is changing that.

The emerging robotic systems are collaborative – they work with the associates on the floor.  This means that instead of requiring 100% process automation in the application, these new robots can be used to automate the appropriate part of the process.  That makes them more flexible and a better fit for the lean world.

The question then becomes what are the use cases where we can apply these new robots and how do they align with lean manufacturing protocols?

Process overview:

In a Lean Manufacturing environment demand pulls production.  Safety stock and batching is eliminated to drive the most efficient production process.  Kanban quantities are pulled in standard containers to the point of use, typically a flexible cell, only when needed.

In this scenario the pull signal generates a pick and transport from the stock area of an exact order kit to the point of use, typically a designated Kanban location, and the empty container is retrieved.  This may require an associate to physically pick, retrieve and transport the container from the interim supplier stocking point to the point of use.

Let’s look at the opportunity for collaborative robots to add value in this process.

1.      Lean Manufacturing is demand driven.

Demand driven strives to match production exactly to the customer specific order configuration.  The end goal is to have production in lock-step with demand to deliver exactly to demand without variance or waste.

Robotic automation has always been good for high-volume, repetitive tasks.  Maturing robot technology can now be applied to lower-volume tasks that up to this point have required human intervention.  This includes better navigation technology that allows the robots to be truly autonomous and smarter algorithms that enable more complex collaborative tasks.

Robots can now support picking and delivering unique component kits for unique customer configured orders.  The collaborative robots are smart enough now to pick and deliver order-specific configurations and this takes the next step towards enabling true demand driven response.

2.      Utilizes flexible manufacturing methods to match supply to demand. (cells)

Flexible manufacturing enables the work cells to flex to both the volumes and configurations of orders.  In best practice these lean repetitive manufacturing flows minimize change-overs. Through cross training associates the cells have the capabilities to flex to the demand-driven customer orders all the way down to a ‘lot of one’.

In this environment the new generation of smarter, collaborative robots have the ability to match the flow and flex to low volume, order specific picks.  These robots can easily be ‘software configured’ to map to changing demand configurations in support of flex and flow of the cells.

3.      Eliminate waste (travel time and touches)

Using robots to pick and transport standardized kits to point of use maps directly to waste elimination (Kaizen).  Traditionally this type of automation was too rigid (conveyors, ASRS) and ran counter the flexibility required by a lean process.  The new flexible robots can automate the process and be quickly reconfigured for a new use without the traditional cost and capital requirements.

Not only can the robots increase the efficiency of the operations in terms of throughput they also eliminate different types of waste in the process.

  • Transportation waste
  • Queue and wait time waste (robots are instantly available)
  • Pick waste
  • Reduction of the number of human touches in the process

In additional the robots are ‘lights out’.  They are not constrained by shifts or skill-set availability.

4.      Utilizes deliver to point of use with standardized containers with small lots to visible Kanban.

Robots will deliver the standardized container replenishment or the order-specific kit directly to the point of use exactly when it is needed.  Traditional automation systems couldn’t manage simple visual signals to drive replenishment (empty bin, square on floor).  Collaborative robots will flex to volume (up and down) without having to add humans.  They will wait patiently for the pull signal and execute with no waste to deliver to the point of use.

5.      Utilize central supermarkets for common components that are pulled to the floor as needed by Kanban.

Robots can also be used the same way to replenish consumables to the cells from a supermarket.  In a supermarket use case the robots will receive the pull signal from the Kanban locations in the cells and automatically deliver a fresh bin replenishment to the point of use and remove the empty bin.  No human interaction or interruption of flow.

6.      A focus on six-sigma quality.

Removing human touches from the pick and transport process removes potential qualify problems.  For example, in an electric static sensitive environment the robot can be configured to always respect the electro-grounding requirements.  A variety of real-time environmental sensors can be built into the robot picking and transport application to monitor the quality being delivered.  The robot becomes a TQC platform.

Robots are perfect for six-sigma and TQC efforts because they don’t make mistakes and they don’t create potentially damaging touches in the pull and deliver process.

Summary:

A new generation of robots has matured to the point that they will enable many Lean Manufacturing use cases.  A perfect starting point is the pick, transport and delivery of components and kits to the point of use in production.  In the continued push to eliminate waste, drive perfect quality and deliver to direct demand a new cadre of robots is ready to lend a shoulder to the wheel.

Why Use Autonomous Mobile Robots for Fulfillment? Here are 7 Great Reasons.

Why Use Autonomous Mobile Robots for Fulfillment? Here are 7 Great Reasons.

We are on the cusp of a new robotic revolution in fulfillment operations. Converging market forces and emerging technologies have triggered the next shift—an evolutionary step in which human-tended autonomous picking carts “yield the field” to game-changing autonomous mobile robots. Robot-human collaboration is experiencing an exciting breakthrough that will transform much of the material handling world.

Collaborative, bi-directional autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are now capable of independently picking up and delivering order-totes from one warehouse shelf to another, or to the shipping area, without any help from a human worker. Warehouse staff can focus on picking items into order totes, while all transportation across the distribution center floor is handled entirely by a team of robots working in parallel with people. We have essentially “crowdsourced” the transportation part of the process for maximum picking efficiency, as well as increasing existing warehouse capacity.

So here we have two teams—one human, one AI machine—working side-by-side to execute fulfillment faster while minimizing the stress—and tedium—experienced by workers.

Underpinning this great fulfillment concept is a more general material handling breakthrough that has many additional benefits, such as boosting output, reducing worker fatigue, and raising (human) job satisfaction. In this series of posts, we will take a look at seven reasons to embrace AMRs for material handling in the warehouse. Here is an overview:

Greatly enhances fulfillment throughput: An AMR fleet delivers significantly better throughput than manual picking and legacy pick & pack solutions. Robotic systems that optimize workers and robots independently where you don’t require pairing up robotic carts with human workers yield the maximum efficiency.

Little or no disruption to existing warehouse infrastructure: AMRs easily integrate into existing infrastructure requiring no expensive changes to racking and shelving. AMRs are built with safety and navigation tech to operate in the same space as human workers.

Increases staff productivity and job satisfaction: AMRs with the ability to lift and put down order-totes eliminate manual lifting and walking long distances, creating a healthier, easier work environment for personnel.

Reduces errors in real-time: A typical manual piece-picking operation may experience up to 35% incorrect picks, whereas using a system to validate item, location and order-tote practically eliminates pick errors.

Monitors and tracks key performance indicators: Performance monitoring for the entire human-robot workflow lets managers assess the overall fulfillment process and performance of the individual robots and pickers.

Evolves flexibly with business needs: An AMR solution can easily scale up or down to meet changing volume demands and adapt to new work flows.

Lowest Total Cost of Ownership: With AMRs, capital investment is low, implementation takes only a few weeks, and return on investment is achieved in twelve to eighteen months.

In our coming posts, we’ll expand on many of these benefit areas.

Here’s Why Robots Dominated MODEX in 2018

Here’s Why Robots Dominated MODEX in 2018

Robots were all the rage at MODEX this year. Even before you walked through the doors of the World Congress Center in Atlanta you could tell robotics would be a major theme—the show guide alone had 47 mentions of it.

What’s going on in robotics right now that warrants such an outpouring of interest from the material handling industries? What forces are converging to unlock the potential value of robots? Let’s take a look.

A Shift in Market Forces: Amazon, Assortment, and Speed

The first major influencing force is loosely referred to as the “the Amazon effect.” Business practices are shifting in response to changes in how end customers buy, with the continuing trend toward “ecommerce expectations” forcing even traditional companies to change their ways in the face of market pressure.

The shift to ecommerce is compounded by emerging customer sentiment for assortment and speed, spurring a proliferation of low-volume items that still have a high service level expectation. This is the classic ‘long tail’ defined by Chris Anderson in 2006. Supply chains must now develop capabilities that fly in the face of their traditional high-volume, low variability distribution processes.

The new market forces extend beyond ecommerce. One well-known clothing manufacturer at MODEX traditionally shipped cases and packs of underwear to stores at high volume. Now it does individual piece picking to consumers. The staff has created an entirely new workflow for outbound distribution to pick and ship individual pairs of underwear. They are not alone; to meet the demand of ecommerce consumers, many companies are developing processes to pick and ship pieces or eaches. It’s very hard to automate sufficiently to handle this high-mix, high-variability flow. Lacking a suitable option, companies have been forced to throw people at these processes.

Happily, a new generation of robots—autonomous, flexible and collaborative robots—can handle a high mix flow. Robots work with people to drive efficiencies in processes that have traditionally been immune to automation. At MODEX we saw a new generation of robots diving into this void to meet the challenge.

Robot Maturity Creates Interesting Math

Enabling technologies are maturing, trying to keep up with the accelerating shift in market expectations. The building blocks of robotic hardware are continuing to get better, faster and cheaper. Emerging software disciplines around machine learning are making the hardware smarter.

For example, high-resolution cameras and LIDAR have become commercially practical for robot self-guidance. Today’s onboard computing power can process tens of thousands of sensor points, allowing robots to shake off physical tethers and move about on their own. This is a major leap forward in deploying robots in warehouse and distribution applications. No longer tied to wires or waypoints, and fully aware of their environment, self-guided robots can now work alongside humans in existing spaces, opening up the opportunity for true collaboration.

Today the choice is not humans or robots, it’s humans and robots. We’ve arrived at a point where 1 + 1 = 3.

Maturing technology means it is no longer cost-prohibitive to apply robots to lower volume work streams. The machine learning ‘smarts’ of the new generation of robots can handle more variability in tasks. The ability to collaborate with humans coupled with significant intelligence creates a low-cost, highly flexible automated solution that meets the needs of the long tail items in the supply chain.

The Future Belongs to the Efficient

Since before the introduction of the production line—in other words, forever —the supply chain has been under pressure to reduce the cost of material handling. We are talking about labor. Workers are hard to find, expensive to train, and difficult to keep. Every year, seasonal surges in volume drive the scarcity of trained workers over the top.

At the same time, private equity ownership is changing businesses. Because equity ownership drives efficiencies and is not constrained by “the way it’s always been done” there’s a growing appetite to explore innovation. And that is driving new forms of automation.

When robots are deployed collaboratively with humans, efficiency increases by 2 to 6 times. Instead of “throwing people” at seasonal shifts in volume, robots can be dropped into existing distribution environments alongside the people with no need to extensively re-engineer existing processes. Robots can do the work humans don’t want to do or aren’t suited to faster, cheaper and with higher quality. Companies see robots as a key enabler.

Our MODEX Takeaway

It looks like we are on the verge of a robotic revolution in the supply chain. Converging market forces, emerging technologies, and increasing business pressure to automate are creating fertile ground for adoption. Many of the robotic applications on display at MODEX automate existing applications (autonomous floor cleaners, autonomous picking carts, etc.), which are incremental improvements, not game changers. There were also pieces of solutions on display (robotic hands, vehicles). There’s no question that some of the capabilities being developed are solutions in search of the right problem.

The next shift—the big shift—will happen when technology automates use cases that break new ground in autonomy, changing the way humans work in ways formerly dreamed of only in science fiction.

Robots appear to be on the cusp of an exciting breakout. Effective use cases are being put into place, and when the material handling world realizes what is possible, the adoption of robotic systems within supply chain automation is set to explode.

Visit NextShift Robotics in Atlanta at Booth #C2363 at MODEX

Visit NextShift Robotics in Atlanta at Booth #C2363 at MODEX

HALL C Booth #C2363
MODEX Floor Plan

The 2018 MODEX Supply Chain Conference takes place from April 9-12 and NextShift Robotics will be there. Over 800 companies and thousands of attendees will converge on the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia to see the latest innovations in warehouse technology, ecommerce, material handling systems and equipment, inventory management, and logistics. Keynote speakers from UPS, Deloitte Consulting, and the MIT Sloan School of Management will address topics like today’s supply chain challenge and the ways the digital revolution is driving productivity, and Dirty Jobs host and Founder of the mikeroweWORKS, Mike Rowe will talk about the value of skilled labor and the benefits of hard work.

The four-day conference features product demos, informational meetings, and networking sessions based on the topic, The Foolproof Way to Futureproof Your Business. The largest supply chain expo in North America, MODEX highlights the latest technology, equipment, and solutions that make businesses run smoothly, quickly, and efficiently.

NextShift Robotics will be at MODEX showcasing a collaborative mobile robotic solution that will take your fulfilment center productivity to the next level in less than 4-6 weeks and provide an ROI (return on investment) in just one year.

Visit the NextShift Robotics team at booth# C2363 to meet our robots, Roger and Golf, and learn how easy it is to integrate autonomous mobile robots into your warehouse without making expensive infrastructure changes. Our solution increases throughput, extends warehouse capacity, and frees workers to pick (not transport) products, increasing efficiency by 2-6 percent. You’ll be amazed at how our uniquely collaborative robots can create faster, more cost-effective fulfillment for your business.

To learn more, watch our video, introducing our patented workflow and highlighting how NextShift Robotics can create an efficient material handling solution for your business.