Incorporating Mobile Robots into Your Supply Chain Strategy (6 Winning Factors)

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Rising consumer and customer expectations and the demand for faster delivery is rapidly changing the way we must think about manufacturing and logistics. Also, cost pressures are increasing, and companies must think through how to provide better service while reducing costs. This is where robots and automation, along with next-generation technologies are leveraged. Negative perceptions about the use of robots and automation are changing, and companies realize that if they are going to be in business in a few years from now, it’s because they decided to invest in automation and looked toward incorporating mobile robots. It will be challenging to compete in a global economy without a robust automation strategy. It’s no longer an option to put your head in the sand and wait until a competitor shows that using robots and automation successfully can be done.

Companies that are winning the supply chain game by embracing new technologies, such as mobile robots and IIoT monitoring, understand success hinges upon selecting best-in-class technology and developing a well-thought-out supply chain automation strategy. There are six industry-leading considerations that factor into creating a game-changing, cost-competitive supply chain automation strategy.

1. Understand Your Metrics
The most important aspect of developing a winning strategy for incorporating mobile robots and automation is establishing measurable goals that align with core strategic objectives. In many cases, bosses will approach managers and say, ‘we need to automate to compete.’ The correct response to this should be, ‘OK, but what are our goals? What are we looking to achieve through automation?’

Even when answers like cost reduction, increasing throughput and gaining greater efficiency are obvious answers, the question needs to be raised to think holistically about the use of robots and automation within the supply chain. Quite frequently, robustness and scalability are overlooked in the decision-making process.

For example, in their planning, businesses must consider how fragile their processes are to disturbances such as equipment failure, Wi-Fi disruption or power outages. Your focus needs to be on developing a robust system that prevents a point of failure from bringing your operation to a complete standstill for any length of time.

A big problem in logistics is dealing with surges. We have clients that claim 400% throughput during their highest levels of the year. When you have a flexible technology, like our mobile robots, there are strategies you can begin to adopt to deal with these types of cycles more cost-effectively and robustly.

2. Simulate, Simulate, Simulate
Take advantage of modern simulation and simulate all material flows and processes, not just production configurations. The saying, ‘simulation is doomed to succeed’ is true.

You must evaluate numerous different operational concepts and test before you begin deploying hardware. You must also come to an understanding about which concept will achieve the best models for your organization. Use simulation to answer specific questions and align them with your established metrics and goals.

Within these simulations you must address multiple questions such as, ‘should I handle shipments at the case level or should I break down that pallet immediately and distribute it? Or ‘should we keep it on the pallet until we take the case off?’ There is no wrong right answer to this. The only answer is what you determine your goals are, and the information and data you have that will help you reach those goals.

By simulating all responses and scenarios, you can minimize risk and identify points of potential bottlenecks before committing to the detailed design of an automated process. A failed simulation project costs very little money, whereas a failed deployment can set you back years and millions of dollars.

3. Prepare Staff
There are many common misconceptions about incorporating mobile robots and autonomous systems that cause people to mistrust the use of them. Though that is starting to change, companies should develop a communication strategy to eliminate fear. If possible, companies should also try and make the technology accessible to employees. We found that this further removes the mystery and the perceived threat and presents a much better outcome.

We introduced our technology to workers at a client facility, and a young man asked, “when do we get our pink slips?” We spent time explaining the use of the technology, which created a better understanding of the personal and company-wide benefits. Something interesting I’d like to note is that when this employee touched the robot, he continued to ask questions. He began to feel a sense of ownership in the process. Afterwards, he said that he wanted to learn more about the robot so that he could show others how to use it. At that moment, he was begging to see a career opportunity.

4. Leverage Distributed Systems
Industries are moving away from large complex systems due to the need for flexibility. Having a real understanding of the metrics you are trying to meet and selecting a technology that will allow you to achieve your goals is crucial, and often this means having a combination of platforms to handle various weights and sizes of materials. Our warehouse and manufacturing operations customers require multiple robot form factors with different capabilities.

For this reason, we developed a robust fleet of mobile robots to handle a range of payloads. Businesses must consider systems that are appropriate for multiple situations and environments that offer great flexibility and reconfigurability. The goal is to accommodate future expansion or changes in business or maximizing efficiency and productivity with a minimal amount of resources. The ability to adapt existing processes and systems without significant difficulty is valuable in both cost and efficiency.

What needs to be stressed is that highly dynamic environments, require human/robot (automation) collaboration to create a highly efficient system. Your planning is incomplete if you do not consider the value of human labor in a collaborative environment and how it will integrate into the business process. A real robust collaborative environment involves human and robots augmenting each other. The skills of each one create a robust system that gives you the best of both worlds to handle a variety of operational tasks and situations.
We have had situations where our client’s power went out. While many systems went down with the power, our robots continued to work, and it is a good thing that the client could use human labor to cover the conveyors and keep part of the operation moving until everything else came back online.

optimized warehouse with vecna robotics RL3600-DO Pallet Truck

Visual representation of an evolved and optimized warehouse using Vecna Robotics’ AMRs

5. Constant Optimization

Companies that can afford to do so, should evolve rather than taking a ‘big bang’ approach to robotics and automation. The Big Bang migration technique requires the least amount of time when compared to other strategies, and I will not say that the fast, ‘rip and replace’ implementation can’t deliver a rapid and solid return on investment. However, in a Big Bang approach considerations such as institutional knowledge held at the worker level, can be overlooked and lost in rapid approaches. When this occurs recovery from a miscalculation tends to happen at a slower pace.
If you can make incremental changes, you will have a better opportunity to understand how changes impact a system and prevent overlooked points of failure.

6. Leverage Remote Support
The most significant failing of mobile robots has been weak, post-deployment support and missed or unmet expectations. We have been operating in hospitals for years and chose to automate hospitals first because it’s the most difficult and complex environments to have an autonomous platform. For this reason, we’ve built a robust Remote Assist system for monitoring and addressing systems for robots. In most cases, the issues we encounter with our robots in operation are due to human error.

For example, we deal with situations where employees leave large amounts of shrink wrap on the floor directly in the pathway of our robots. Safety is critical, and our robots will not commit to an action if they cannot assess the situation and guarantee it to be safe. In the case of the large amount of shrink wrap on the floor, the robot will determine that it cannot guarantee that going over the object is safe. Instead, the robot will send a remote assist alert. One of our Remote Assist technicians then aides the robot in assessing the situation and within seconds, inform the robot that it can proceed in a safe and reliable manner.

Our approach to post-deployment support represents a paradigm shift from thinking of robots as a piece of equipment to more of a service. To ensure reliability and safety, companies want to look for this type of system when considering adding robots and automation to their operations.


Considerations when incorporating mobile robots into your supply chain:

1. Design robust supply chain and set metrics that you care about
2. Simulate to reduce risk
3. Prepare staff
4. Value distributed systems
5. Seek optimization
6. Have a robust post-deployment support system

Read more about how to incorporating mobile robots into your workflows here.