Modern technology is reshaping the future of supply chains, and the logistics industry faces a number of challenges that can be addressed by robotics. For instance, a study done by Boston Consulting Group found that between 2020 and 2030, labor shortages and imbalances in 25 major economies will be responsible for $10 trillion in lost revenue.
In addition, consumers have increasing expectations of product range and rapid delivery. To deliver a broader range of products on time, supply chain managers must embrace modern technology to streamline their operations. While robots are known to drive operational improvements, they can also help ensure worker safety. On the one hand, this involves taking care of tasks that often cause injury.
On the other hand, it’s about being equipped with technology that doesn’t hurt human co-workers. Mobile robots are delivering on the promise of enhancing operational performance while also improving the jobs and wellbeing of workers in the process.
Focus on collaboration
The supply chain industry is clearly ripe for disruption. In fact, research done by DHL has found that 80% of warehouses are operated manually. Labor shortages, reliance on manual labor, and the push for digital technologies across industries point to the need for logistics modernization and digital disruption.
However, instead of attempting to replace human workforces, many companies are looking to augment manual operations with warehouse robots. Bionic companies, which Boston Consulting Group identifies as organizations combining the efficiency of technology with human ingenuity, are the key to succeeding in the next decade.
One thing to keep in mind is that many warehouse robots are being built for human-machine collaboration. Collaborative robotics, or cobots, are designed to interact or operate safely around humans and other equipment. It is imperative that warehouse robots be considered a more effective tool for certain tasks than the manual tools of the past.
To be fair, robotics and automation don’t have the same experience nor flexibility as human operators. These tools must be taught, programed, or enabled with artificial intelligence and machine learning. Human operators are important to the instruction process.
People are particularly good at some things, and robots are particularly good at others. The trick is to find a balance between the two. That means focus people on applying judgment and leaving precise, repetitive tasks to robots for optimal performance.
With respect to the limitations of industrial automation, improvements are being made, and some solutions have more sophisticated capabilities. However, the human worker remains the most flexible tool for the warehouse. When coupled with cobots, the human becomes a more effective operational force.
Make robots do the ‘heavy lifting’ in supply chains
It’s unlikely that technology will replace humans because robots are built to perform tasks, not creative problem-solving. They lack the flexibility and dexterity to eliminate jobs. Instead, they can make their human co-workers more efficient and provide increased worker safety if deployed correctly.
Many injuries and accidents are the result of human error. Robots can relieve humans of the “dirty, dull, and dangerous” tasks, resulting in improvements in warehouse safety. This allows staffers to concentrate on other types of tasks while allowing them to be aware of their surroundings.
By carrying out more monotonous tasks, robots can also cut down on repetitive injuries such as muscle strain, wear and tear on the joints, and accidents associated with worker fatigue.
Advancements in sensors, vision systems, and operational AI are enabling robots to recognize and avoid humans and other obstacles, boosting productivity as well as safety. When integrated into a warehouse management system, these points of value are further expanded. Now, workflows can be orchestrated and optimized to drive performance while automating labor allocations.
AMRs can increase productivity
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can deliver everything from intricate picking fulfillment to moving pallets and large payloads. Such robots operate from digital maps of their environments. The existing warehouse management system (WMS) feeds tasks to the robots, and the digital mapping, sensors, cameras, and embedded safety mechanisms provide all the information they need to operate.
Warehouse operators are increasingly deploying AMRs to take on productivity-draining movement. This means they can carry heavier items over longer distances. This allows workers to reduce miles walked, pick smaller items from the shelves, and thus spend more time performing value-added tasks in the eyes of the customer.
Unlike fixed infrastructure such as conveyor belts, AMRs can be affordable, flexible, and easy to scale once in place. This is not only important for peak seasons, but also for unexpected events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to unprecedented e-commerce demand.
With AMRs, scaling an operation can be as simple as just adding more robots. Once the system is in place, there is zero ramp-up time, and robots can be added or removed as needed. It is this flexibility, coupled with the new Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS) delivery model, that is helping supply chains of all sizes drive improvements with mobile robots.
Robotic picking arms
In some cases, robotic arms can be used in picking processes. This combines vision systems, robotic arms, intelligence software, and gripping tools or end effectors to autonomously handle the act of picking an item from a bin, tote, box, conveyor, and even a shelf.
Again, by taking on one aspect of a task, human workers can concentrate on tasks that matter. They don’t need to look at scanners or RF guns and “have their eyes free,” which can prevent accidents in the warehouse. Plus, employees are protected from injuries stemming from repetitive movements or twisting.