That’s the fear, isn’t it? I think that this prediction is half right. The robots are coming, so brace yourself. Whether we like it or not, the robots are coming. However, I don’t think those robots are going to be taking over our jobs any time soon. We’re not looking at artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) that have reached sophistication where robots can take over our world. I just don’t see that happening.
In the United States, we’ve seen some of the benefits of these technologies and the attendant automation. We also have built a culture of people who want to work. I don’t foresee a future where we send almost all of the humans home, leaving a few CEOs, like those at Amazon, Walmart, Costco and Boeing, to run everything using an army of robots. We have created complex systems and infrastructures in place—and they depend on the current economic systems. Perhaps someday, we’ll develop a basic income arrangement to make sure that people are funded to get what they need, but that’s an entirely different conversation.
Instead of solving that issue, let’s look at how the advent of robotics will impact warehouse managers and supply chain executives. There are things we need to know, and ways we can plan for the changes. Technology costs for many technologies, from semiconductor chips to computing power, have come down significantly. It’s possible to deploy robots affordable, if a few challenges can be addressed.
Integration, although a pretty significant effort, can be done. Hire the right experts, and you can, by investing time and money, get to where you want to be. In the not too distant future, many vendors will have the inbuilt integration with various types of robots available. Take a look at just about any technology tradeshow and you’ll see a market that is crowded with up and coming offerings. If you want to take up that integration as one of the first guinea pigs, you can, but be ready to learn along with them and set aside some budget for learning as part of the project. Eventually, a handful of leaders will shake out and set the standards.
Infrastructure is next on the priority list, since infrastructure promotes efficiency. Interconnection over a 5 GHz WiFi network, for example, will allow robots to perform tasks (such as carrying merchandise) while still tracking where all the other robots are. Other robots need sophisticated vision systems to work, which requires, as a basic, very good lighting and color-coded racks, bin locations, and assembly lines. The advanced algorithms needed for robotic functioning are CPU intensive, which leads to a demand for powerful smart batteries, fast charging technology, automatic docking capabilities and more. Some important questions:
- How long does it take to charge these robots?
- How are you going to handle that downtime, ensuring work is done during that time?
- Will you need two robots to replace each person to ensure 100% uptime?
Certain systems will become non-negotiable: a warehouse management system (WMS), a warehouse control system (WCS), or enterprise resource management system (ERP). Make sure the system you choose now has the sophistication and integration capabilities to be compatible with robots when you need it.
Not One Size Fits All
When tackling technology questions, it’s important to start with the end in mind. What problem are you trying to solve? Are robots the right answer to solving that problem? Get to the root of the problem. For example, labor shortages can be traced to not enough people, but might also be related to absenteeism. Figure out the real impact of the problem. For example, measure the problem in terms of delivering to service level agreements (SLAs) with customers. Next, plan out the best solution you can imagine. Could robots solve part or all the problem? Find out how other industries and organizations have leveraged the technology successfully. Start slow, by testing the technology I a limited way (think crawl, walk, run then fly). Measure the results and implement accordingly.
Today, only organizations with large volumes have a business case that will make robots make sense. It takes this kind of scale to achieve reasonable return on investment (ROI). It’s also important to measure based on the minimum workload rather than peak. Unlike employees, robots can’t be sent home if there’s no work to be done.
Like any machinery, robots demand ongoing care and maintenance. Predictive maintenance is critical to minimize downtime. Factor in the cost of on-site service engineers or a service contract. Also consider how readily the use of the robots can be reconfigured to address business changes.
Before investing in robots
Especially in the warehouse environment, there are some ways to refresh the effectiveness of your processes to reduce the need to automate via robot. Consider:
- Optimizing your pick path to minimize travel. Also, continually reevaluate and optimize your travel path to address changes.
- Putting a good slotting program in place to periodically slot/re-slot your A, B and C SKUs to reduce travel.
- Evaluating voice control technology as an affordable way to increase efficiency.
- Measuring and managing labor metrics and alerting operators that they are being tracked. When employees know they are being measured, it often nets a five to seven percent productivity gain.
In a nutshell, don’t assume that robots will be a silver bullet for every supply chain problem or every company. Already, we are seeing promising robotics companies fail. At the same time, robots are certainly a technology to watch.
Are you using robots in your operation? Let us know what problems you’ve solved and what your ROI has been. We’d love to hear your experience.