5 Small Innovations that Had a Big Impact on the Supply Chain

The following article is part of series by Vecna Robotics’ CMO Josh Kivenko that dives deep into the world of material handling and explores new areas where automation solutions can be deployed at scale in distribution, warehousing and manufacturing operations.

5 Small Innovations that Had a Big Impact on the Supply Chain

Innovations both big and small have impacted the ways that packages and goods get delivered around the world. When you think about how a product that you order at your computer or via your phone gets delivered to you within days or even hours, you can thank many of the innovations that were developed over the past 100+ years for the supply chain.

Many of these innovations helped take manual processes that were already in place and automated or digitized them, making the processes more efficient. This also allowed for further innovations, creating a cycle of invention that gets us to today’s modern supply chain.

Here are our picks of five supply chain innovations (in no particular order or ranking)

#1: Barcodes and barcode scanners: The first barcode, a circular design that looked like a bullseye, was invented in 1948 as a way to tackle problems of the supermarket industry for inventory management and customer checkout. Eventually the barcode evolved into the common rectangular stripes you see today, as well as the first barcode scanner, which debuted in 1974. In a world before barcodes, much of the inventory within a store had to be counted manually, a very labor-intensive process that most workers detested.

Today, barcodes are practically on everything, and systems that read barcodes are found on devices such as wearable scanners, handheld scanner guns – even your smartphone can read them. They continue to help companies track inventory levels and their location throughout the supply chain.

#2: Automatic dock doors: More than just a motion sensor, new automatic loading dock doors have sensors that will only open and close when they detect motion from a forklift truck, which helps improve the efficiency of an operation for moving goods back and forth within a warehouse. At the same time, other types of motion within a warehouse, such as humans walking by, do not trigger the door from opening. This helps replace a manual process by which a worker would need to stop their forklift, get out, open the door, and get back into the forklift. In some ways, it’s a lot like garage door openers for your home – a nice innovation that automates a manual process.

#3: Pallets: Moving goods around in a warehouse in the early days of the industrial revolution involved several pulleys and hoist systems, which had limited range. The development of a wooden pallet, as well as lift trucks that could lift and move items stacked onto a pallet, helped companies more quickly move products around a warehouse and store them.

#4: Rack configurations: The design of pallets led to warehouse layouts that rely on rectangular shapes – you don’t see many circular warehouses or shelving areas that are curved. With the rectangle, companies began developing different rack configurations to  support different types of products to be stored. Designs such as selective pallet racks, double-deep racks, push-back racks and pallet flow racks assist companies with easier ways to store and remove pallets that are being delivered via forklift or other vehicles. In almost all of these examples, the rectangular shape of the shelving and racks themselves allow for flexibility for a warehouse to install or deploy.

#5: Removable floor tape: In most warehouses, floors are marked to help indicate hazards, divide spaces, create aisles or give people directions on where to move. Prior to the development of removable floor tape, many of these markings would be painted, creating delays while workers waited for the paint to dry and to dissipate fumes. Vinyl tape that can be reapplied is also very helpful when a warehouse wants to reconfigure an area or create new areas for things such as where pallets can be placed or pallet jacks can be stored. Innovations in tape include scuff- and break-resistance, as well as different colors to indicate different areas in compliance with workplace regulation rules.

Small innovation, big impact

In each of these cases, the initial development of a small innovation to solve one problem led to further innovation down the road. We are now seeing similar evolution within the robotics and automation space, where developments of technologies such as mobile autonomy, robotic gripping and artificial intelligence can help automate more processes that were not possible a few years ago.

To learn more about how Vecna Robotics can help your distribution, warehousing or manufacturing operations achieve its automation goals, click here.

Read part 3 of the series, “Did Someone Say Co-Bots?” Here.

Did Someone Say Co-Bots?

The following article is part of series by Vecna Robotics’ CMO Josh Kivenko that dives deep into the world of material handling and explores new areas where automation solutions can be deployed at scale in distribution, warehousing and manufacturing operations.

Did Someone Say Co-Bots?

Advances in sensor and camera technologies have made robots more intelligent, allowing them to collaborate more with human workers instead of being isolated in cages or separate areas. Known as co-bots (collaborative robots), this new form of robot can slow down or stop completely to prevent humans from getting injured, but they also enable companies to develop new human-robot workflows that automate previously manual methods. In essence, they aim to focus on the “collaborative” aspect of the term, rather than the “robot.”

Co-bot concepts are starting to break through in the autonomous mobile robot (AMR) space, where advances in lidar and machine vision developed for the self-driving vehicle space are helping to create indoor robots that can help deliver materials autonomously within a warehouse environment. These robots use their sensors and cameras to avoid obstacles and other workers within a dynamically changing warehouse setting.

Collaborative AMRs have revolutionized many processes within a warehouse, taking previously manual, boring or even potentially dangerous tasks and automating them to create a safer environment. Examples include autonomous forklifts that can drive pallets from a loading dock to a storage area, or AMRs that act as a delivery cart in an e-commerce fulfillment picking operation.

Many companies are experiencing the tip of the iceberg in the possibilities for collaboration with AMRs and human workers in warehouse and manufacturing environments. Smaller processes, known as micro-workflows, can easily be automated with co-bots, and often with the same equipment.

For example, a company that deploys an autonomous forklift to handle the dock-to-stock process (where pallets are unloaded from a truck and moved to a storage area) can also use those robots to handle the delivery of finished pallets (in a factory) or completed orders (in an e-commerce warehouse) to the shipping side of the warehouse. Similarly, AMRs that are used to help pick items for e-commerce fulfillment can also be re-utilized to help with replenishment operations or to automate the movement of returns (either back to storage shelves or delivery to a third-party recycling or refurbishing location).

The good news for operations looking to deploy such automation in their operations is that co-bots are generally less expensive than traditional industrial robots or automated guided vehicles that require a heavy capital outlay. Several robot companies and systems integrators offer robots-as-a-service business models that let companies deploy robots using operating expenses rather than capital expenses, a big plus for companies looking to deploy the technology rapidly and scale with their operations.

In addition, robot developers in both the AMR space and co-bot arm world continue to make improvements to their systems that increase the speed of the robots themselves while maintaining safety protocols that keep human workers from getting injured. As camera, lidar and machine vision technologies advance, robot systems will continue to improve as well.

The good news is that there are a ton of workflows within a warehouse or factory environment, from large-scale picking to micro-workflows like returning pick carts from packout, that are ready to become more collaborative by combining the best of humans with the best of robots. In fact, studies have shown that collaborative robotic workflows can be more productive than when humans and robots work independently of each other.

When starting their automation journey, many companies immediately jump to a lights-out vision. However, the reality is that co-bot solutions are often more accessible, faster to implement, and faster to provide an ROI, all while boosting the productivity and engagement of your staff. The key is to focus on where automation can provide benefit and to remember that co-bots are an effective and valuable tool in the toolkit when applied to the right workflows.

To learn more about how Vecna Robotics can help your distribution, warehousing or manufacturing operations achieve its automation goals, click here.

Read part 2 of the series, “Size Doesn’t Matter: Automation for Smaller Facilities and Space-Constrained Workflows Is on the Horizon” here.

 

 

Size Doesn’t Matter: Automation for Smaller Facilities and Space-Constrained Workflows Is on the Horizon

The following article is part of series by Vecna Robotics’ CMO Josh Kivenko that dives deep into the world of material handling and explores new areas where automation solutions can be deployed at scale in distribution, warehousing and manufacturing operations.

Size Doesn’t Matter: Automation for Smaller Facilities and Space-Constrained Workflows Is on the Horizon

Technology advances over the past several years have led many companies within the supply chain to explore robotics and automation to improve efficiency in their operations. But in many cases, these tend to be giant, capital-intensive projects with fixed equipment such as large robotic arms, protective cages and long stretches of conveyors.

Operations managers at companies with medium-sized facilities or larger facilities with workflows with tight space constraints will likely have their eyes glaze over when an automation provider or systems integrator comes to them with a proposal aimed to overhaul their entire distribution or fulfillment center operations. In many cases, that results in continued operations that are mainly manual, and companies are still faced with continual labor shortages while facing surging customer demands.

Fortunately, technologies are coming online that can allow companies with a smaller footprint or with workflows in tighter spaces to reap the benefits of robotics and automation without having to write a giant check.

For example, a company that uses manual processes and vehicles such as forklifts and pallet jacks to handle the transport of pallets from the wrapper to the dock door, can soon begin to deploy autonomous mobile robot (AMR) systems. The systems can augment existing material handlers to speed up and meet demand for this process, with integration that can be handled quickly and without disruption to the company’s operations.

Increasingly, acquiring such robots can be done through a robots-as-a-service (RaaS) approach, which eliminates the need for high capital expenses (CAPEX) in favor of an easier-to-manage operational expense (OPEX) outlay. Robot companies that use a RaaS model provide the equipment, monitor the operations, and provide maintenance support, which reduces the overall cost for a smaller or midsize company to implement automation.

This method also provides more flexibility for companies that need additional robots to meet growing demand – an organization should be able to order more robots to be deployed to handle peak periods, and then redeploy them in other areas of their facility, rather than having large capital-intensive robots sit idling during slow periods.

Other micro-workflow processes that can achieve quick ROI can include waste and dunnage removal, consolidating totes and pick carts to/from picking lines and packout, and parts delivery between workcells and processes in discrete manufacturing plants. Until recently, the cost of material handling automation technology only made economic sense when it replaced manual workflows where a human worker needs to walk or drive long distances within a warehouse or when such work had significantly high throughput. But what about those shorter distances or lower utilization workflows that automation has left behind? With less affordable labor at the ready, when and how does this work get done efficiently?

Companies that are considering automation should keep an eye out for solutions to these micro-workflows that are coming online that, until now, were too costly for robotics and automation to work for them sensibly. With flexible systems that can be integrated into existing facilities and business models that reduce upfront costs, companies with smaller facilities or with labor-intensive workflows in confined spaces will be able to begin their automation journey to address labor shortages and increasing customer demand challenges.

To learn more about how Vecna Robotics can help your distribution, warehousing or manufacturing operations achieve its automation goals, click here.

Read part 1 of the series, “The Top 5 Industrial Workflows that Automation Left Behind” here.

 

 

 

The Top 5 Industrial Workflows that Automation Left Behind

The following article is part of series by Vecna Robotics’ CMO Josh Kivenko that dives deep into the world of material handling and explores new areas where automation solutions can be deployed at scale in distribution, warehousing and manufacturing operations.

The Top 5 Industrial Workflows that Automation Left Behind

Several processes occur in the journey of a product from manufacturing to its final destination, and many of these processes occur within a company’s warehouse or distribution center. Several micro-workflows happen between the time a truck arrives at a loading dock to the time an order is fulfilled for either e-commerce delivery or shipment to a physical store.

In many cases, these micro-workflows are still handled manually, with human workers utilizing heavy equipment such as forklifts and pallet jacks, as well as pen-and-paper forms and entry into a warehouse management system.

While these “in-between” loads may not get much attention, they can gum up your total throughput, especially in today’s environment where affordable labor is scarce and ever-changing demand/supply patterns are pushing warehouses and factories to the brink.

I’d like to take a moment to discuss the top 5 micro-workflows that, so far, automation has left behind.

Waste / Dunnage removal: In manufacturing and warehouse environments, dunnage removal is the process by which packaging materials, such as cardboard, bubble wrap, wadded or crumbled paper, Styrofoam, and inflated air packs are discarded. In an assembly line, the materials are often placed into a removal bin, which is then manually moved to either a recycling or trash disposal area. In warehouses, human workers often need to walk through storage areas and pick up discarded dunnage for further removal. Imagine if AMRs and other robotics systems can be utilized to autonomously move through a warehouse to assist with dunnage removal, or be programmed to move to a disposal area once a certain weight or capacity has been achieved? Workers would no longer need to manually walk around a warehouse or move carts manually to the disposal area.

Empty pallet, cart, and tote consolidation: In picking and replenishment processes, individual SKUs are often picked to/from pallets of mixed cases, or carts with totes of inventory. Once these pallets and carts are taken through their full pick paths, the depleted carts, totes, and pallets are often consolidated in designated staging areas and need to find a way back to their original point of use to be reloaded for the next order. Using AMRs to automate the transport of these stacks of empty pallets and totes, or to bring empty carts back from packout to the start of the picklines, could allow your staff to focus on picking their next order instead of hauling.

Pick-to-Packout: When picking orders for ecommerce fulfillment, a pick cart or pallet can often traverse the entirety of a warehouse. However, at the end of the pick list, the picker must always bring these orders back to packout for shipping, which is usually located close to the outbound docks – meaning they may need to backtrack across the entirety of the warehouse yet again just to drop off their finished orders. Automating this last leg of a pick cart’s journey using AMRs could save pickers valuable travel time and allow them to immediately start picking their next order instead of pushing a heavy, fully loaded cart all the way back to shipping.

QA to Shipping: Similarly, when picking mixed cases and building rainbow pallets for store replenishment, these orders are often staged in a QA area for final inspection prior to being fully stretch wrapped and staged for shipping. QA stations are also used in parcel sortation and fulfillment centers to handle exceptions or packages that were flagged by automated sortation and other conveyor-based equipment for further processing. Using on-demand AMRs to shuttle orders away from the QA station once processed could free up ton of space, allow your staff to focus on inspections, and/or take away these small distractions from your other material handlers.

Receiving to QC: On the opposite side of the warehouse, there are many instances during the receiving process where a certain delivery is flagged and must be pulled away from the rest of the inbound orders for further inspection and quality control. Instead of wasting your receiver’s or a forklift driver’s time to pull these pallets, using flexible, imagine if on-demand AMRs could allow both of your resources to focus on their core value-add tasks of unloading and receiving trailers instead of moving a pallet to the corner of the dock for QC.

And one bonus workflow for good measure.

Lineside to Rework: Finally, a similar process can occur during the manufacturing process, where a defective part or component may not pass quality metrics and needs to be pulled out to a specified rework area and/or circulated back into the line for additional processing. Automating this low-occurrence process via AMRs could free up your assemblers and material handlers to focus on production instead of pulling them away for one-off trips across the plant.

These are but a few of the manual processes that could be easily automated through the use of AMRs and other self-driving vehicle technologies but have been left behind because the technology has not yet been tuned for those workflows or the economics simply does not make sense, yet. But with labor shortages at all-time highs and hourly wages on the rise, don’t be surprised if automation solutions for these workflows are closer than you think.

 

To learn more about how Vecna Robotics can help your distribution, warehousing or manufacturing operations achieve its automation goals, click here.