?Market-driven value networks are adaptive supply chains that can quickly align organizations market-to-market to focus on the delivery of a value-based outcome,? says Lora Cecere, an analyst and founder of Supply Chain Insights, in a recent report.
And one way companies can ensure this type of agile business is to use robots to automate labor intensive warehouse management.
Robotic technology can give businesses a competitive edge by helping them get their products to market faster.
In an interview Cecere points to MA-based Kiva Systems, now owned by Amazon, a manufacturer of robotics systems that helps e-commerce retailers like Staples, Office Depot, Gap, drugstore.com, and Amazon, operate more efficiently.
Here?s how the Kiva system works: Numerous bright orange, footstool-like Kiva robots navigate around getting their orders wirelessly from servers running order-processing software. When an order is received, a Kiva robot reads 2D barcodes on the floor to navigate to products that are stored in mobile inventory pods in the middle of the warehouse.
The robot retrieves the appropriate pod and brings it to a human worker standing at an inventory station on the perimeter of the warehouse. The worker picks out the appropriate item and places it in the order container for shipping.
Because the Kiva robots can transport goods from any point A to any point B (rather than fixed points) at any time, warehouses can be organized and run more cost effectively.
The Kiva system is a very successful example of a logistics supply chain for a fulfillment center like Amazon might run, says Professor Seth Teller of MIT?s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, who works with the military developing robotic systems to improve supply chain operations.
Structured vs. unstructured environments
?From a technical perspective, one of the reasons the approach works for them is they have the freedom to highly structure the supply chain environment,? he says. ?And it?s a nice distribution of labor.?
But that approach won?t work in military depots where robots have to do much more of the work and handle a much broader range of conditions, he says.
?The robots have to be a lot more capable to be useful in a military setting then they need to be in an industrial fulfillment warehouse,? Teller says. ?The bottom line is there have been some pretty significant advancements in the military logistics sphere in the last five years or so.?
And most likely within the next decade, those advancements will migrate out of the Department of Defense and into industry, he says.
?You can just deploy some robots in the [warehouse], and they will be much more flexible about finding their way without been given prior maps, about being able to function in less forgiving conditions, about being able to effectively manipulate the products themselves,? Teller says. ?They?ll find the products on the shelves, grab the right one, put it in the UPS box, seal up the box, put the label on it, and get it out the door, without having humans involved in all of those steps.?
The idea is to make these machines more able to work without having to be placed in carefully prepared environments, and to function much more independently and effectively without having to hand things over to people when things get difficult, Teller adds.
?We also make our robots able to work side by side with humans. They have some awareness of who?s around; where they?re going to move next,? he says. ?That?s a big difference. If you look at Kiva systems, they work under the assumption that there are not any people nearby. That?s how robots have been built for decades. If I want to have a robot in a small business, it needs to work side by side with me like my other employees.?
In the food and beverage industry, robotics are used in the warehouse or distribution center, says Derek Rickard, Distribution Systems Manager for automated material handling company RMT Robotics Inc. in Ontario, Canada.
Furthering the goals of lean manufacturing
RMT makes robotic gantry technology that automates case and layer picking in high-SKU, high-rate operations. Combining large and fast gantries with a network of conveyor and integrated support equipment, cases are received and temporarily stored on the floor under gantries and then selectively picked to fulfill orders.
?It?s a big square machine and you can fit a lot of product underneath it,? Rickard says. It?s about 40 feet wide by 100 feet long. You can fit a couple of hundred different pallets underneath it. So in a warehouse instead of picking a product off a rack, we store everything underneath the gantry, the robot. We communicate with the company?s warehouse management system. We download the order information, then our robots go to work and assemble the pallet that has to go on the truck. Before you had a guy picking 200 cases an hour, maybe he?s doing 10 or 15 layers of work in an hour. We can pick 120 layers an hour with one robot, working independently of humans. Layer picking is the biggest area we are focusing on. The payback is the best with layers.?
To further the goal of lean manufacturing, RMT is currently focusing its efforts on loading a truck when the truck is at the warehouse.
?[The robot gantries] will pick the orders when the truck is there or almost there,? Rickard says. ?A lot of companies pick a long time before the trucks arrive. They just don?t have a good process for streamlining that. I think a lot of it goes back to the labor being a little unreliable. Sometimes they pick a day or half a day ahead of time. With our system being automated, and more reliable, we can pick the order just before the truck gets there. Or as the truck arrives, you can start picking and live load the truck and you get rid of a whole process.?
RMT Robotics has also developed an intelligent AGV (automated guided vehicle) named ADAM, an autonomous mobile robot transport of goods in warehousing and manufacturing applications. ADAM independently transports work-in-process materials and finished goods in lean manufacturing and assembly applications from point A to point B by any available route. ADAM performs missions autonomously, navigating around fixed and moving objects, free of guide wires, reflectors or transponders.
ADAM also supports the main tenets of lean manufacturing companies ? delivering the appropriate quantities of material when and where they?re needed, according to Bill Torrens, director of the ADAM Systems Group.
And companies that integrate ADAM with other lean approaches can operate more efficiently, running production their way, not the way traditional material handling equipment forces them to operate. They can also improve their on-time deliveries and better manage their inventories ? saving money in the process, according to the company.