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Mobile Robotics and Safety: Building A Better Work Environment

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By: Steven LaFevers, Contributor

Warehouse robotics are past the awareness stage. From horizontal transportation to storing and retrieving pallet loads at height, increasingly capable robotic solutions are becoming regular fixtures at warehousing and automation events, and in trade and business publications across the globe.

And with technology advancing to become increasingly capable and scalable, the signals for greater adoption of robotic solutions are clear. What better way to augment your labor pool, enable social distancing, boost productivity and improve retention than by automating repetitive, non-value-added tasks and focusing employees on more engaging, satisfying work?

The underlying industry forces make adopting robotics a pending reality, not just a possibility. Instead of building an understanding of robotic capabilities and their theoretical value, distribution center managers are asking for practical guidance to turn robotic ambition into adoption.

As with any new technology, safety is a critical element in this move to adoption, especially as so-called “cobotic” workflows feature humans working in close proximity to their robotic counterparts. Answering the question of safety on the path to adoption requires understanding robotic lift truck functionality, navigation behavior and how their work can affect the roles of human counterparts – both in the normal course of business and in special circumstances.

Mobile robotic navigation technology

While traditional automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) require guidance infrastructure like embedded wire, reflectors or magnetic tape to navigate fixed pathways, the latest robotic lift trucks represent a departure from that paradigm. Today’s robotic solutions are capable of moving through indoor logistics environments without navigation infrastructure or an operator.

This competency is made possible by Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM), in which robotic solutions use a reference map based on structural elements in the operating environment and compare it to what they sense in real time. This process allows the robotic lift truck solution to accurately and precisely self-locate – no additional navigation infrastructure required.

As know-how continues to mature and equipment decreases in cost, an increasingly popular navigation system is the laser-based technology, Lidar – short for light detecting and ranging. This sensing method sends out pulses of laser light to determine the presence and distance of objects. To understand their location while in operation, mobile robotics use Lidar to get the real time “view” of surroundings and compare to the reference map mentioned previously through the SLAM process.

Mobile robots and warehouse safety

The consistent, strong performance of navigation technology and programming of site-specific rules enable robots to adapt to surroundings and real-time conditions, while strictly following safety protocols. This capability helps reduce the risk of accidents, collisions or other safety incidents, including when compared to lift trucks with human operators.

High turnover is common in warehousing, and with inexperience among operators comes increased risk. OSHA estimates that approximately 70% of forklift accidents could be avoided through better adherence to standardized training and safety procedures. By comparison, robotic solutions deployed on the warehouse floor perform according to their programming from day one – without the extensive onboarding and training required to bring new operators to a satisfactory level of skill and experience.

While robots are predictable – they always follow safety procedures and can be programmed for site-specific rules of the road – people are not. And with humans working more frequently in close partnership with robots in what’s known as cobotics, training everyone who enters the facility on how to safely interact with robots is especially important.

How do mobile robots affect the role of workers?

While it’s clear that safety can get a leg-up, another chief advantage of robotics might not be as obvious. For some, the idea of robotic colleagues might conjure a bleak or even dystopian scene for modern workers, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

Automation technology can actually make work more “human” and make people happier at work. Academic research shows that organizations augmented by automation technologies are 33% more likely to be “human friendly” workplaces, in which employees are 31% more productive. That’s because robots have the power to relieve workers of the monotony of repetitive tasks that are abundant in supply chain environments, and instead focus on more rewarding, higher responsibility work.

But delegating repetitive tasks to robotic solutions goes beyond busting boredom for employees, though it does that too. Enabling personnel to concentrate on more strategic work better equips them to remain focused and practice good judgment – both major advantages for warehouse safety and productivity.

Scientists have found that monotonous work can negatively impact mental health, cause major stress and lead to burnout. In her paper, “Neuroscience Reveals That Boredom Hurts,” Dr. Judy Willis, a neurologist and former classroom teacher, claims that when we’re bored our judgment, goal-directed planning, risk assessment, focus and control over emotions all suffer.

For most workers, risk-assessment, focus and judgment are a matter of performance. But for warehouse workers who spend their shifts supervising machinery, maneuvering heavy loads, and operating in a fast-paced environment, those factors are also fundamental to safe – and effective – operation.

As the conversation around employee engagement continues, robotics can play a part in shaping more meaningful work experiences. Improved job satisfaction is significant for individual employees, but it’s also a boon to operations. According to a Gallup study, organizations with better employee engagement achieve higher performance, including substantially better retention, fewer accidents and increased productivity. Finding and training new hires can cost thousands, so using robotics to shift human workers toward responsibilities that help engage and retain them makes good business sense, too.

Cobotics in action

Through human-robot collaboration, cobotics capitalizes on the unfaltering reliability we expect from robots, and the knowledge, creativity and decision-making skills of people. An example of a cobotic workflow in practice might include a worker who shifts her focus to picking and retrieving, assembling pallets and other more complex, high-value tasks while an automated lift truck takes on the work of repeatedly traversing the warehouse, transporting product from point to point. Spared from accompanying the lift truck, the worker invests more time completing high-impact tasks that both exercise and benefit from strategic thinking and problem solving. As the robotic lift truck fulfills needs throughout the facility, several features help it serve as a good steward of a safe working environment.

Robotic lift trucks adhere without exception to warehouse “rules of the road,” such as maximum speed or minimum distance from pedestrians, other equipment, facility infrastructure and more. Where workers can be distracted by what they’re carrying, co-workers or environmental factors, robotic lift trucks are not prone to such diversions, relying on environmental sensors to detect and avoid obstacles.

Management software can direct robotic lift trucks to take predetermined routes to avoid heavy traffic areas. For operations with multiple robotic lift trucks in use, this ability to manage routes to help avoid bottlenecks is especially valuable, both for efficiency and safety-oriented benefits.

A reduction in warehouse congestion can allow pedestrians and manned lift trucks to navigate without delay or incident more easily. That seamless traffic flow is especially valuable as warehouses ramp up storage capacity and order volumes during seasonal peaks and other demand fluctuations.

Special circumstances: Worker safety in a pandemic

While robotic solutions offer significant operational benefits in the normal course of business, they’ve also been uniquely valuable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the outbreak unfolded, maintaining at least 6 feet of social distance between workers quickly became a critical measure to protect essential workers. Converting social distancing guidelines into reality required many operations to adjust workflows and reduce staffing levels, an added challenge as facilities worked to keep pace with surging consumer demand also brought on by the pandemic.

Robotics help operations respond to demand without increasing headcount and helping reduce worker-to-worker contact that can risk virus transmission. For example, a robotic lift truck that transfers products between locations allows workers to remain relatively stationary or contained to a particular area as they work, helping maintain a safe social distance.

Introducing robotics to your warehouse

Advancements in underlying technologies have made robotics increasingly attractive. These technologies enable solutions that reliably practice facility traffic protocols, allowing them to drive productivity and work according to safety guidelines. Though as with any warehouse tool, training workers on how to properly interact with them is just as essential.

Once employees are thoroughly trained on proper protocol for working in cobotic settings, putting robotics to work in your warehouse can also help provide a more nuanced benefit – freeing workers to focus on roles that keep them more mindful and engaged. WMHS

Steven LaFevers is the Vice President, Emerging Technology, Hyster Company. To learn more about how Hyster robotics can support your operation, visit www.hyster.com/north-america/en-us/innovations/robotic-lift-trucks/.

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