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It was 1985, and I was part of a team that was designing and implementing a new Warehouse Management System (WMS) for Southwestern Bell. I was walking through the facility with the warehouse manager, when we came upon the first AGV I ever saw in a warehouse.
AGVs are the ancestors of today’s Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). The manager remarked that the AGV I was admiring was primarily used to deliver sarcastic notes the shipping and receiving supervisors were in the habit of sending to one another. This “modern marvel” was not unlocking major productivity gains.
While I was inspecting this potentially transformative but sorely underutilized harbinger of things to come, it went completely haywire. Alarms started blaring, lights were flashing, and – as if I was the source of its distress – the AGV began rapidly moving away from me.
I happened to be wearing a long raincoat, which immediately became entangled in the front edge of the machine. I had no choice but to hustle alongside this massive, disconcerted thing as it tugged me along in its clutches. I managed to shed my coat just as the astute supervisor engaged the AGVs emergency stop button. I was safe, but the coat was a goner.
After 70 years of slow, sometimes painful, evolution, today’s Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) and Autonomous Mobile Manipulation Robots (AMMRs) are now on the cusp of truly transforming the supply chain. Despite the long wait, the new pace of change will be dizzying.
In the Beginning . . .
I’ve spent more than fifty years personally observing and analyzing hundreds of DCs and warehouses around the globe. Not until 2000 did I begin to see AGVs play a significant role in distribution and fulfillment environments.
Until then conveyors and fork trucks remained the primary means of moving product in and through DCs and warehouses. AGVs were more often deployed in manufacturing where they were tasked to deliver parts to assembly work areas and finished goods to outbound distribution.
Outfitted with robotic arms,Autonomous Mobile Manipulation Robots are able to pick orders and parts, handle totes, and manage cartons.
The use of guided vehicles in distribution noticeably increased in the early 2000s. AGV-like bots were initially deployed to move product from storage areas to picking areas. These bots navigated on grids either by the means of barcodes on the floor or in fixed-rack structures, and were strictly used in controlled, non-human environments.
Over the course of the next decade, a host of new guidance and safety-detection systems came online. At the same time, computing power exponentially increased and cameras and other sensor technologies grew radically more powerful. All these factors transformed the unit economics of AMRs.
By 2010 AMRs were working safely and effectively alongside humans, and over the next few years they began being deployed to assist in piece-picking operations. Since 2015, AMRs with advanced capabilities have been unlocking a variety of new solutions in Distribution and Fulfillment Centers. These next-gen AMRs are powerful, highly adaptable, and attractive investments given their potential to drive efficiencies that substantially increase margins.
Next-Gen AMRs and the Emergence of AMMRs
AMRs are now being developed with special tops allowing conveyance and the transfer of goods from AMR to conveyor and other material handling equipment. At the same time, we are beginning to see Autonomous Mobile Manipulation Robots (AMMRs) come online. Outfitted with robotic arms, AMMRs are able to pick orders and parts, handle totes, and manage cartons.
This is the type of robot that I always imagined when thinking about the warehouse robot of the future. Flexibility, dexterity, and reach make articulated robots suited for everything from eCommerce picking to machine tending.
The flexibility of AMMRs unlock new proficiencies unimaginable just a decade ago. Material-handling engineers and consultants are now rethinking how Distribution and Fulfillment centers should operate. AMMRs reduce and can even eliminate the need for fixed position and inflexible material-transport equipment, such as conveyors. AMMRs make it possible to adapt fulfillment operations to eCommerce work areas. This frees up valuable warehouse space for accommodating seasonal peak-work activities and equipment like portable put walls.
Rarely does a technology reach maturity at just the right time, but that is certainly the case when it comes to AMRs and AMMRs.
Volatility, geopolitical uncertainty, and the global pandemic are contributing to unprecedented levels of business and supply-chain risk. In trendy managerial-speak we are living in a VUCA world. At the same time we are witnessing widespread behavior change. The rise of E-commerce and on-demand delivery is rapidly changing consumer expectations.
AMMRs reduce and can even eliminate the need for fixed position and inflexible material-transport equipment, such as conveyors.
These trends are driving of AMR/AMMR adoption in three ways:
- Aggressive Movement Away From Labor: The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the risk associated with relying too heavily or exclusively on human labor. Minimum wage rate hikes and paid-leave trends will further contribute to higher degrees of labor risk in the near term.
- CapEx Promiscuity the New Normal: The move away labor and its associated costs will free up budget for capital expenditures. The projected costs of remaining labor dependent are too great a threat and investing in automation will increasingly be financially viable.
- Micro-fulfillment a Macro Trend: It is no longer necessary to invest in massive, state-of-the art facilities for fulfillment operations. Firms that outfit smaller, multi-purpose spaces with the latest, flexible technologies, have the best chances of successfully navigating an uncertain world.
The resilient, flexible supply-chain operations of the future are already being built today, and they are being built around a new generation of safe, fully autonomous AMRs and AMMRs. Our robot collaborators have finally come of age . . . and just in the nick of time.
I recently bought a new raincoat, and I fully expect I’ll be wearing this one for many years to come.
About the Author
Greg Cronin is a supply chain expert advisor and a member of the board of directors at IAM Robotics. Greg is a pioneer in the warehouse management industry, and over his decades-long career he has advised and led companies (like AutoStore, Honeywell Intelligrated, and Quiet Logistics, among others) to level-up their supply chain operations to meet the demands of the day.
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