Craig Powell, managing diretor of Balloon One, discusses the impact that autonomous mobile robots have had on the supply chain
If you keep up with the news from the warehousing and logistics sector, then you've probably heard the term 'autonomous mobile robots' (AMRs) before today. The latest development in logistics robotics, AMRs are equipped with complex autonomous capabilities that make them much more versatile than earlier robotic models, improving overall efficiency and allowing for a more diverse range of applications.
Many industry leaders have hailed AMRs as a cost-effective and extremely efficient way to automate material handling and transport tasks in almost any situation or environment. But just what makes AMRs so revolutionary, and how do they improve efficiency in a warehousing context? In this article, I'll explore these questions in more detail and share my predictions for the future of the technology.
How do AMRs differ from earlier robotic models?
Non-autonomous robotics are currently used for a huge range of different applications within the supply chain and have been since primitive models were first introduced in the 1950s and 60s.
Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) have been a common sight in warehouses for years now and can be used to support and enhance almost any job that could be done by a human operative, like transporting or handling stock. They don’t tire, aren't at risk of injury or accident, and can greatly improve efficiency by optimising workflows and breaking through process bottlenecks.
However, AGVs have their limitations. For one thing, they rely on guiding infrastructure — such as wires, magnetic strips, or sensors — to navigate warehouse environments. This means extensive alterations must be made to the existing facility in order to integrate them, and they can’t easily be used in a different location.
An AMR unit differs from an AGV because it can behave autonomously. That means it can navigate warehouse environments using mapping software and a system of sensors and scanners, which allow it gather data about its surroundings and react accordingly. The robot can use pre-loaded maps to determine the most efficient route for a particular task, and its intuitive interface allows it to react to changes and obstacles in real time.
The development history of AMRs in logistics
The development of the AMRs we see today began back in the early 2000s, with the development of Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS). These were computer-controlled systems that could place and retrieve goods automatically, although they were not completely "autonomous" in the same sense as AMRs.
The next big development came in 2012, when Amazon purchased Kiva Systems, a company that designed and manufactured 'goods to picker' robotic systems. Amazon implemented a robotic transport system that could transport shelving units and stored items to workers for picking before autonomously moving to the next pick-up location. This improved overall efficiency and helped Amazon to further expand into the global monolith we know today.
As Amazon's operations continued to grow, other companies began to take note of the impact that robotics could have on efficiency, and start-ups offering increasingly advanced automatic robotic systems began to appear. This drove rapid development and investment into autonomous technology and, before long, other major companies — such as Ocado and Alibaba — had implemented entirely automatic warehouses.
By 2018, tech companies were producing fully autonomous mobile robots, and a number of big warehousing and logistics companies had integrated these flexible robots into their automation strategies.
AMRs are now used to perform a variety of different tasks: some transport goods to pickers, while others act as an automatic cart that follows pickers from location to location. They are used for sortation and putaway in some contexts, too. And the variety of applications that AMRs can perform continues to grow by the day as more and more companies look to invest in the technology.
How AMRs can improve efficiency
It’s clear that AMRs represent a major step forward in terms of robotics, but how exactly do they improve efficiency within a warehousing context? I've shared the key benefits below.
The biggest advantage of any robotic system is that it can operate around the clock with greater efficiency than a human warehouse operative. They don't get tired towards the end of a long shift, need to take regular breaks, or have "off days". And, while this is true of most robotic systems, AMRs take this one step further, because they require little to no human input. While AMRs will need time to recharge, this normally only takes a few hours, which is generally much less time than a person would need to recover between shifts. Some models are even able to self-dock, reducing downtime even further.
As a result, they can have a dramatic impact on efficiency, doubling or even tripling output. Over 70% of order fulfilment operations and warehouses that deploy AMRs have seen double-digit improvement in KPIs like cycle time, productivity, and inventory efficiency, according to IDC's 2018 Commercial Service Robotics Survey. Retail and wholesale sectors have enjoyed the biggest increases in efficiency, probably because these industries have been deploying robotic solutions alongside their workforce for a while already.
They allow for a more cost-effective use of space
Autonomous robotic solutions can facilitate dense storage solutions, allowing companies to better optimise their spaces. Some warehousing giants, like Ocado, have been able to implement a system where goods are stored in stacked bins, rather than on shelves. While this would slow down human pickers, who perform much better when products are organised on open shelving, an automated robotic system can access and navigate bins containing a variety of products with ease. This can greatly increase the storage capacity of a warehouse and allow for a greater variety and volume of products to be stored in a single area.
They improve accuracy
Human operatives are liable to make mistakes if they get tired or distracted. But AMRs eliminate the need for human input, which in turn greatly reduces the risk of mistakes occurring. As a result, they can greatly improve accuracy during picking and transporting.
They're more versatile than non-autonomous models
In comparison to earlier automated systems, AMRs are much more dynamic and adaptable. Unlike AGVs, which must be guided by wires or magnetic tape, AMRs are able to navigate new environments autonomously. That means they can be moved between different areas within a warehouse without the need for extensive changes to the surrounding environment. Additionally, with some reprogramming, AMRs may be used to perform a variety of different functions.
They're very safe
When used correctly, AMRs have the capacity to reduce the risk of accidents and injuries. Because these machines have an intuitive interface, they're able to react to hazards and obstacles in real time. So, if pedestrians, forklifts, pallets, or other robots cross their path, the AMR can react instantaneously to slow or stop and re-calculate an alternative route to allow it to complete its objective. Short of a system fault or failure, there's no possibility that they will cause an accident. Additionally, AMRs can take over hazardous tasks that would pose a danger to human operatives, such as transporting heavy goods over long distances.
What does the future hold for AMRs?
Looking to the future, I think we can only expect the autonomous functionality of AMRs to become increasingly sophisticated, enabling them to carry out more complex tasks. It’s plausible that AMRs will be able to employ AI and machine learning, giving them an even greater, self-deterministic level of autonomy, much like we've already seen with self-driving cars. If this becomes a reality, then AMRs may even one day be able to "learn" about the surrounding environment, classify objects, and perhaps even identify workers in order to pass tasks or inventory to them.
Some have expressed concern about whether autonomous robots will one day make human warehouse operatives completely redundant. However, I think this is unlikely to come to pass. It takes a huge workforce working in tandem on all sorts of task to run a warehouse and, as even the most advanced robots still have fairly limited applications, an all-robot workforce would be too complex and expensive for the large majority of businesses to implement.
Instead, I think the most productive and efficient model will be a human workforce that is augmented and assisted by robots — or "cobots", as collaborative robots are sometimes known. Many companies are already implementing AMRs that follow personnel around or guide them through tasks, and I think this style of collaborative work can be expected to continue as robots grow more complex.
If you're interested in how automation is changing the supply chain, then read our blog post about the future of robotics in warehousing, where we take a closer look at the role that AMRs could play in years to come.