Mobile Robots, AGVs and You: Sorting Through Options & Moving to Adoption

While moving loads to the right place at the right time remains the goal, new autonomous warehouse transportation solutions, such as robotic lift trucks, have several key differences from their AGV forebears. (Photo courtesy Yale Materials Handling Corporation)

Tom O’Donnell, Contributor

Warehouse robotics are past the awareness stage. From mobile robots to robotic piece-picking systems, these increasingly capable robotic solutions have become regular fixtures at warehousing and automation events, and in trade and business publications across the globe. Instead of building an understanding of robotic capabilities and theoretical value, distribution center managers are asking for practical guidance to turn robotic ambition into adoption.

What Exactly Are These Solutions?

The continued robotics advance has blurred the lines between more established automation options, like automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and newer, more advanced mobile robotics solutions that serve a similar purpose. But, while moving loads to the right place at the right time remains the goal, new autonomous warehouse transportation solutions, such as robotic lift trucks, have several key differences from their AGV forebears.

While traditional AGVs travel on fixed paths and require installing extra infrastructure like wires, magnets or tape for guidance, robotic lift trucks take a different approach. Instead, they use laser-based navigation technology that requires no installation of new infrastructure and can adjust their routes on the fly. This means a simpler startup process and the flexibility to adjust routes as demands change over time. From a service standpoint, standard lift trucks outfitted with robotic technology can be serviced by the same local personnel who already handle lift truck fleet maintenance.

Getting set for a successful investment in robotics requires understanding much more than the evolution of autonomous load transportation solutions. How do these newer robotic solutions fit your operation, in terms of employee acceptance, IT, integration, long-term planning and more? With the pace of change only accelerating, what’s next for mobile robotics? Will today’s technologies quickly become outdated like the newest smartphone? Consider this the guide the beginning of your robotics journey.

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 resource is in charge of finding answers to the aforementioned questions, coordinating automation projects and more. They act as a bridge between outside experts and the unique demands of their operation, identifying best-fit applications for robotics and managing return on investment.

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 WMS or other enterprise software systems.

Internally, they’re responsible for creating a culture of acceptance. They must educate internal staff on how robotics will be used and benefits for both the operation as a whole and each individual employee.

Turnover in this position can delay or even derail a robotics installation. Communication slows; timelines get pushed; and a level of legacy knowledge leaves the process, forcing new internal contacts and automation suppliers to play catchup.

Understand Available Technologies

Part of understanding what robotics can do and how they fit in the short- and near-term is a basic understanding of 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. As with any technology, navigation for mobile robotics continues to evolve. At present, some LiDAR systems have a range of 60ft, but in the future, this will extend to 90ft, then eventually an evolution from 2D to a full 360-degree, 3D view—looking at the ceiling, in addition to walls and racks.

What does this evolution mean for operations using or considering a solution with a contemporary LiDAR system? Rest easy. Rather than a slow degradation over time, like 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 in 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, in which their capabilities can be leveraged for maximum effect.

Are there turnover-prone positions that are a struggle to adequately 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, such as load transportation, storage and retrieval, are particularly well-suited for automation. Robotic lift trucks, for example, have the point-to-point navigation capability to provide consistent, round-the-clock transport productivity, and more advanced solutions can even autonomously reach deep into storage racks up to 30ft high.

Robotics suppliers require a common set of facility-specific information 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

Just as Rome was not built in a day, 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 any kinks in critical processes.

Planning across 5-10 years can account for the continued evolution of technology and a changing competitive landscape. A longer term master plan also provides a critical platform to share future developments and gain buy-in for continued capital investment.

Knowledge to Get Up & Running

According to the 2019 MHI Annual Industry Report, 87% of survey respondents identified robotics and automation as technologies that will have a significant impact on the supply chain in the next 10 years. 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 experience successful results.

Tom O’Donnell is Automation Business Development Manager for Yale Materials Handling Corporation.