March 11, 2022
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.