In the early days of the pandemic, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) were valued for their ability to facilitate social distancing in manufacturing, warehousing and distribution environments. They could be used to transport everything from raw materials and parts, picked and returned items, and even waste and recycling from one worker to the next. By eliminating direct handoffs, the risk of also passing along COVID-19 was reduced.
So, perhaps it’s a bit ironic that AMRs are now considered one of the best ways to close the labor gap.
Reducing worker movements helps speed up inventory movements
Though social distancing felt limiting at first, it ultimately proved that people don’t need to work in close proximity to one another to keep production, fulfillment or even reverse logistics processes running smoothly. They just need AMRs nearby. Today, workers can stay in a single zone all day long and still produce, pick, pack or put away more items than ever before. It’s because they can stay focused on the task at hand. Robots can take on the work that humans really don’t need or want to do, such as running back and forth to ensure raw materials, finished goods, and empty cardboard boxes get to the right place at the right time.
In fact, some businesses have seen productivity rise up to 70% higher within days of augmenting their workforce with AMRs. For one customer, that translated to a 25% increase in throughput.
Giving structure to chaos
Some describe supply chain operations as “controlled chaos.” Though technically a linear flow from the first mile through the last, the truth is that there are so many different branches stemming from that “line” that it can be difficult to keep track of what’s where and who’s doing what. The same is true when you drill down to any single facet of the supply chain, such as a factory or distribution center. Though well-defined processes guide workers through each task to get goods from point A to point Z, some are flowing consistently in a singular fashion, and some require concurrent and coordinated actions to ensure everyone and everything lands at the right place at the right time.
Much like a marching band, each member is playing a different role or instrument, they are doing so in a well-orchestrated manner that allows them to give a stellar performance. But if one person missteps or forgets a note, the whole routine could fall apart. Sure, they may be able to recover and keep going, but at what cost? Their reputation? Ranking? Fan loyalty?
In supply chain operations, one wrong move or mis-pick could have more severe financial or safety-oriented consequences. That’s why it is so critical to ensure everyone can successfully and safely move in unison, even when they are technically moving in different directions throughout a facility. With AMRs, you can set up safe travel lanes, schedule coordinated meetups with human counterparts, and minimize the amount of physical movement required to get through task lists.
Reducing labor costs – and losses
A new study estimates that 2.1 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S. could go unfilled by 2030, a loss that could cost manufacturers $1 trillion in 2030 alone. And “skills gaps” are a prime contributor to this widening labor gap.
But what if we could offset these losses simply by investing more in AMRs?
By utilizing mobile robots, we can maintain operational continuity even when facilities are only staffed at 50%. Better yet, we also give ourselves the opportunity to employ people who may not have been able to work in labor-intensive roles in the past – which might be the only way to fill all those open jobs.
It takes a lot of strength and stamina to push heavy carts up and down miles of aisles. And though walking is great exercise, having to speed-walk nonstop for eight-plus hours a day will take a physical and mental toll on anyone. One major logistics company said it saved its team nearly 20,000 miles in “manual travel” each day by employing AMRs – and that was in a single distribution center.
And one nonprofit that offers skill-based training and warehousing services has empowered hundreds of visually impaired workers to work independently simply by deploying AMRs to move empty carts and assist with case picking. Just think how many more workers manufacturers, warehouse and DC operators and 3PLs could employ if they augmented their workforce with mobile robotics. People of all abilities would be able to join the team and make an immediate impact.
The right move to make now
Though automation may be considered ubiquitous in manufacturing, warehouse operations are ripe for automation and, specifically, mobile robots. The labor shortage is driving record demand for AMRs.
Customers are calling us asking how fast we can deliver AMRs to their facilities. They may not be fully versed on the technicalities of the robot, but they do know it’s in their best interest to utilize them across multiple functions.
Within hours of arrival, AMRs can be fully operational and productive – and workers can become exponentially more valuable and productive, regardless of their past experience or current skillset. Employees can be visually and verbally guided through workflows that are choreographed by process engineers. And, if something isn’t working as smoothly as it should, then a few adjustments to the “choreography” on a mobile computer, PC or other internet-connected device will get workers and robots back in sync and moving through production, fulfillment, and other logistics processes with ease. Workers can get more done each day without feeling burned out. And you can scale operations to better manage velocity and throughput as market dynamics dictate.
Learn more about how you can use mobile automation to augment your workforce here.
About the author
Melonee Wise is the vice president of robotics and automation at Zebra Technologies. She was the founder and CEO of Fetch Robotics, which sold to Zebra in 2021 in a $305 million deal. Wise is keynoting our Robotics Summit & Expo, which takes place May 10-11, 2022 in Boston.
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