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Evolving past robotic ambition to adoption
By Kevin Paramore, Emerging Technology Commercialization Manager, Yale Materials Handling Corporation
Warehouse robotics are past the awareness stage. From mobile robots to robotic piece picking systems, these increasingly capable robotic solutions have become regular fixtures at warehousing and automation events and in trade and business publications across the globe.
Instead of building an understanding of robotic capabilities and theoretical value, distribution center managers are asking for practical guidance to turn robotic ambition into adoption.
To set operations up for a successful robotics investment, there’s plenty to consider. The pace of change keeps accelerating – what does that mean for today’s robotic technologies? Will they become outdated in a couple years like the newest smartphone? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg – questions abound regarding employee acceptance, IT, integration, long-term planning and more.
Appoint an internal champion
Whether tapping an existing resource or hiring a specialist, more companies are assigning an internal champion to be responsible for automation throughout the organization. This resource is in charge of finding answers to the aforementioned questions, coordinating automation projects and more.
They act as a bridge between outside experts and the unique demands of their operation, identifying best-fit applications for robotics and managing return on investment. Implementation is an especially critical time for an internal champion. With a consistent point-of-contact, technology suppliers get the access and resources they need for efficient implementation and commissioning, including everything from sufficient Wi-Fi bandwidth to IT configuration for integration with WMS or other enterprise software systems.
Internally, they’re responsible for creating a culture of acceptance. They must educate internal staff on how robotics will be used and benefits for both the operation as a whole and each individual employee.
Turnover in this position can delay or even derail a robotics installation. Communication slows, timelines get pushed and a level of legacy knowledge leaves the process, forcing new internal contacts and automation suppliers to play catchup.
Understand available technologies
Part of understanding what robotics can do and how they fit in the short and near term is a basic understanding of technology.
Mobile robotic solutions commonly use LiDAR, a laser-based navigation technology that produces a two-dimensional view of the facility by looking for hard features like columns, walls and racking. Like any technology, navigation for mobile robotics continues to evolve. At present, some LiDAR systems have a range of 60 feet, but in the future, this will extend to 90 feet, then eventually an evolution from 2D to a full 360-degree, 3D view – looking at the ceiling, in addition to walls and racks.
What does this evolution mean for operations using or considering a solution with a contemporary LiDAR system? Rest easy. Rather than a slow degradation over time like many consumer-oriented tech products, current-gen mobile robotic technology will continue to perform as designed.
Qualify your operation’s workflows
With an internal champion leading the charge and technology understood, it’s time to figure out where robotics fit in daily operations. Today’s robotic solutions are designed with a certain set of tasks in mind. Managers must identify the best-fit workflows to deploy robots, in which their capabilities can be leveraged for maximum effect.
Are there turnover-prone positions that are a struggle to adequately staff? Better yet, are these positions characterized by repetition or long horizontal movements? Using positions with consistent staffing challenges as a guide, find where robotic abilities overlap to automate entire processes or key repetitive elements.
Basic functions like load transportation, storage and retrieval are particularly well-suited for automation. Robotic lift trucks, for example, have the point-to-point navigation capability to provide consistent, round-the-clock transport productivity, and more advanced solutions can even autonomously reach deep into storage racks up to 30 feet high.
Robotics suppliers require a common set of facility-specific information to qualify an operation for robotics, and then design and quote a solution. This includes:
- Facility CAD drawing, preferably with stops and aisles highlighted
Load dimensions and weight range
Plan for phased implementation
Just as Rome was not built in a day, transitioning to automation does not happen overnight. A longer process done right will always be more effective than an error-filled rush to the finish.
Operations should consider a phased approach to robotics, moving incrementally from simpler to more complex tasks across various applications and workflows. Scaling up in this manner allows the rest of the organization to get comfortable with automation and provides the flexibility to work out any kinks in critical processes.
Planning across 5-10 years can account for the continued evolution of technology and a changing competitive landscape. A longer-term master plan also provides a critical platform to share future developments and gain buy-in for continued capital investment.
The knowledge to get up and running
According to the 2019 MHI Annual Industry Report, 87% of survey respondents identified robotics and automation as technologies that will have a significant impact on the supply chain in the next 10 years. With the market showing a greater appetite for robotics, more providers will join the market and end users must become better-informed consumers of robotics solutions and services. This practical knowledge is critical to select vendor partners, set realistic goals and ultimately experience successful results