The robots are taking over. Or so we keeping on hearing. There is no denying that the implementation of autonomous robotics is going to have huge effect on many industries but the key will be how the introduction of the systems are managed. It’s a brave new world we are venturing into with the next level of technology taking businesses towards unexplored territory. As exciting as that can be, it also raises valid concerns and a considerable amount of uncertainty about how they can be integrated into existing processes.
From Then To Now
Before being bought by Amazon, Kiva Systems were the market leaders in producing Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) that were sold onto other companies. Naturally this stopped after Amazon decided to deploy and use them within their own distribution centres, rather than selling them onto potential competitors. There are now a number of alternatives available on the market, such as Swisslog CarryPick, Scallog System and GreyOrange Butler, who offer more flexible and scalable options.
The previous versions of these transport units, Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), are slightly more cumbersome and require dedicated tracks to be installed which meant some restrictions were placed on where humans could work within the warehouse. There was also a considerable amount of preparation required, which is not the case with AMRs. Those issues no longer exist, as the AMRs will follow mapped their routes to avoid any obstacles or issues. This involves a human employee mapping this out for a couple of days beforehand, which should not cause too many difficulties, even for larger sized spaces.
As with the introduction of any new system, the trick is finding how to bring them together in a way that allows them to operate efficiently to optimise the operation of the warehouse as a whole. The warehouse management system (WMS) will continue to run as the central software, of course, instructing the warehouse control system (WCS) on what needs to be picked and where it needs to go. Similar to how you would with a human, AMRs can be controlled through a task queue, which makes it no different to a typical user. Jobs will be routed to either human or robotic users, with work decided on by priority and location.
With the software running through a secure cloud, this also means there is no need to bring in new hardware or software into the warehouse. Setting up an AMR also doesn’t require you to bring in an army of IT experts to get them into operation either. Even if the Wi-Fi coverage in the warehouse isn’t great, as an alternative, mobile modems can be used instead. AMRs will need to be charged which will mean the installation of docks, but these are typically very low key and offer no safety concerns to the other workers or the facility itself. Because they are autonomous robots, they take care of this themselves, without much need for ongoing maintenance or attention from other workers.
For the vast majority of warehouses, this set-up time can be as short as one week, which is a surprisingly short amount of time, given how complex and intelligent the AMRs are. So while the upfront cost will be larger, the impact on operations during this period will reduce any knock-on effect and as output increases the ROI will soon be noticeable. There are also AMRs that work hand-in-hand with humans, essentially doing the legwork of transporting the goods from one location to another.
With the exponential increase in online shopping, the demand placed on e-fulfilment warehouses is growing year on year, which makes the switch to autonomous mobile robots an inevitably for almost everyone at some point in the near future. The cost will come down and concerns will be eased, while the benefits will become far more apparent as time goes by.