Waking up from robot dreams

by Inside Logistics Online Staff
Mick McCormick is director, robotics and automation for Yale Material Handling Corporation

Warehouse robotics have passed the awareness stage. Distribution centre managers are asking for practical guidance to turn robotic ambition into adoption.

To set operations up for a successful robotics investment, there’s much to consider. The pace of change keeps accelerating – what does that mean for today’s robotic technologies? Will they become outdated in a couple years like the newest smartphone? There’s more – questions abound regarding employee acceptance, IT, integration, long-term planning, etc.

Appoint an internal champion

Whether tapping an existing resource or hiring a specialist, more companies are assigning an internal champion to be responsible for automation throughout the organization. This person is in charge of finding answers to the questions above, and coordinating automation projects.

Acting as a bridge between outside experts and the unique demands of their operation, the champion identifies best-fit applications for robotics to maximize ROI. Implementation is an especially critical time for an internal champion. With a consistent point of contact, technology suppliers get the access and resources they need for efficient implementation and commissioning, including everything from sufficient Wi-Fi bandwidth to IT configuration for integration with software systems.

The champion is responsible for creating a culture of acceptance, and must educate internal staff on how robotics will be used and the benefits.

Understand available technologies

Part of understanding what robotics can do and how it fits in the short and near term is a basic comprehension of the technology. Mobile robotic solutions commonly use LiDAR, a laser-based navigation technology that produces a two-dimensional view of the facility by looking for hard features like columns, walls and racking. Like any technology, navigation for mobile robotics continues to evolve. At present, some LiDAR systems have a range of 60 feet, but in the future, this will extend to 90 feet, then eventually evolve from 2D to a full 360-degree, 3D view – looking at the ceiling, in addition to walls and racks.

What does this mean for operations using or considering a solution with a contemporary LiDAR system? Rest easy. Unlike the slow degradation of many consumer-oriented tech products, current-gen mobile robotic technology will continue to perform as designed.

Qualify your operation’s workflows

With an internal champion leading the charge and technology understood, it’s time to figure out where robotics fit into daily operations. Today’s robotic solutions are designed with a certain set of tasks in mind. Managers must identify the best-fit workflows to deploy robots for maximum effect.

Are there turnover-prone positions that are a struggle to staff? Better yet, are these positions characterized by repetition or long horizontal movements? Using positions with consistent staffing challenges as a guide, find where robotic abilities overlap to automate entire processes or key repetitive elements.

Basic functions like load transportation, storage and retrieval are particularly well suited for automation. Robotic lift trucks, for example, have point-to-point navigation capability, and more advanced solutions can even autonomously reach deep into storage racks up to 30 feet high.

Robotics suppliers require a common set of facility specifications to qualify an operation for robotics, and then design and quote a solution. This includes:

  • Facility CAD drawing, preferably with stops and aisles highlighted;
  • Load dimensions and weight range;
  • Throughput levels;
  • Aisle widths;
  • Travel distance;
  • Speed limit;
  • Future goals.

Plan for phased implementation

Transitioning to automation does not happen overnight. A longer process, done right, will always be more effective than an error-filled rush to the finish.

Operations should consider a phased approach to robotics, moving incrementally from simpler to more complex tasks across various applications and workflows. Scaling up in this manner allows the rest of the organization to get comfortable with automation and provides the flexibility to work out the kinks in critical processes.

Planning across five to 10 years can account for the continued evolution of technology and a changing competitive landscape.

The knowledge to get up and running

With the market showing a greater appetite for robotics, more providers will join the market and end users must become better-informed consumers of robotics solutions and services. This practical knowledge is critical to select vendor partners, set realistic goals and ultimately get results.