ProMat Preview: Synchronizing Robots With the Supply Chain
March 07, 2019      

Companies looking to deploy robotics into new or existing supply chain operations will need to do more than just powering on the robot and letting them loose. Integration with warehouse systems, including software and data resources, will require strategic planning.

At this year’s ProMat conference, Nicholas Finill, a senior analyst at ABI Research, will present “Synchronizing Robots with the Modern Supply Chain”, from 12:30 to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, April 9. The session is part of the CRO Summit at ProMat, produced by RoboBusiness and Robotics Business Review.

Finill shared some details about the session and spoke with us about some of the trends within the warehousing and supply chain space.

Q: What are some takeaway messages that you hope attendees will get from your session?

Finill: I will discuss how retailers, distributors and third-party logistics companies (3PLs) can leverage robotics to improve flexibility – not just in their warehouses, but throughout their supply chain. There are so many advantages that robots can bring to operations, but tying in fulfillment or distribution operations with supply chain planning in an adaptable way is certainly a primary benefit. The talk will explore how this is becoming possible, and why it’s important.

Q: We’ve seen many companies begin to deploy all sorts of robotics in the warehouse and supply chain space. In your view, what is driving these deployments?

Finill: It’s about the inherent challenges warehouses face. They struggle to hire enough people, and when they do, it’s a struggle to train and retain these employees, especially during seasonal peaks or in locations that are away from urban centers, as is the case for most warehouses. Robotics represents a way of alleviating pressures and high costs that arise from labor shortages.

Robots are also incredibly efficient and reliable, meaning the throughput of goods in a warehouse can be increased while also vastly reducing handling errors. Robotics also provide an advantage over traditional, fixed mechanized automation such as conveyor systems or traditional automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS). The modern warehouse needs to be able to scale operations up or down with demand.

Mobile robotics enable warehouses to add or remove robots as needed, meaning peak demand can be met while saving costs in times of lower demand thanks to flexible pricing models. This is an enormous advantage for retailers, who struggle to predict long-term demand, and 3PLs who often have short logistics contracts with clients. 

Nicholas Finill, ABI Research

Nicholas Finill

Q: How many of these deployments are able to fully integrate with a company’s warehouse management system (WMS)? If they cannot, is the deployment doomed, or is it a “nice to have” feature?

Finill: Integrating robotics within the WMS is not just nice-to-have, it’s need-to-have. WMS, which can connect to a warehouse control system (WCS) or even a warehouse execution system (WES), controls the flow of goods in and out of a warehouse, so it needs to integrate smoothly with robots and their operating systems. Otherwise, robots would not be able to receive the right instructions and execute them accordingly.

Fortunately, most robotics vendors have really strong integration capabilities and see smooth interoperability as a commercial necessity for their solution. It is therefore common for robotics vendors to seamlessly integrate with any WMS, thanks to a strong focus on APIs. Integration is also becoming easier as WMS becomes increasingly cloud-based. Challenges still remain, but at least the robotics vendors are generally aware of the issues warehouses face and do a great job of dealing with them.

Q: How does the use of additional data optimize a supply chain for a company? Can you give some examples where a company has learned valuable data after integrating with a WMS or was able to learn valuable data from their robots?

Finill: Within the warehouse itself, robots can gather data that will enable continuous improvement of processes, such as route or layout optimization. More complex robotic functions are also emerging. Picking robots, for example, are constantly gathering visual data and are learning to improve the accuracy of physical item picking as they go.

Looking more holistically at the supply chain, robotics and digitized operations in general have enormous potential to deliver data-driven optimization of operations. If robots, drones or other devices are used to automatically monitor inventory levels across a number of facilities, intelligent supply chain optimization tools can use this data to optimize where goods are sent to or from in order to deliver results to the bottom line.

However, optimized decision making can only take place if the precise quantity and location of products are known. Otherwise it’s guesswork. The combination of operational inventory data and smarter AI-enabled supply chain management software could prove to be a winning combination in the increasingly complex supply chain.

Q: What questions does a company need to ask before deploying robots into their operation, or when integrating with a WMS?

Finill: Several key questions need to be asked. Is the warehouse fulfilling e-commerce orders or handling goods in palletized distribution? Will the warehouse be a purpose-built greenfield facility, or a retrofitted brownfield site? How many orders/ goods is the facility expecting to handle? Does demand fluctuate heavily throughout the year or does it remain more stable? What types and varieties of goods are being handled in the warehouse?

These questions and more will determine which workflows can and can’t be automated, and which types of robots can be used. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs), autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), autonomous forklifts, picking robots, palletizing robots, and more can all be used in a warehouse, but rarely are they all used in one single facility. Warehouse operators should ensure they are using the right tool for the job, and that any robotic strategy will adapt as operations change, which inevitably they will.

Finill is speaking at the CRO Summit at ProMAT on Tuesday, April 9, at 12:30 p.m. Register here to attend the summit.