Six Steps to Automating Tugging and Other Material Handling Operations

By: Mike Harper, Contributor

To automate the delivery of lineside supplies, a top-tier automotive manufacturer recently integrated its existing manufacturing conveyers with autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) pulling custom trailers. Not only did this autonomous tugger solution reduce how often employees had to manually lift and move heavy objects, but it eliminated the risk of forklift-related injuries that could occur while transporting engines and other materials from assembly to testing within their 40,000 ft2 facility.

In one trip, a single AMR tugger can carry what it typically takes two manned forklift trips to transport, which adds up substantially over the course of a typical day. As a result, the manufacturer was able to move two team members in two shifts to higher value tasks, while maintaining just-in-time lineside supply delivery and their 95% uptime goal.

Automating tugging and other material handling workflows can be a daunting task. To alleviate the concerns and any potential risks, consider these six steps:

1. Identify Opportunities for Automation

Not all tasks benefit from automation, but a closer look at your operation might identify more than expected. Look for tasks that are:

  • Repetitive: Is your task the same every time? Automating these tasks enable workers to stay focused on high-value tasks.
  • Predictable: Does the task adhere to the same process each time, like moving materials from point A to point B or just-in-time delivery of raw materials from storage to lineside?
  • Unsafe or taxing on people: Could automation eliminate moving heavy loads by hand or push carts, or reduce/eliminate other safety risks and hazards?
  • Cause product or materials damage: Would automation, with sensors and other safety features, reduce or eliminate the risk of damage?
  • Inefficient: Does the task really require a human worker?

2. Meet with an AMR Vendor

There is no one-size-fits-all robot or automation deployment. To ensure the best automation solution, work with a vendor who looks at your unique needs, and identifies the best opportunities for automation and the robot best suited for each task.

A proven and trusted vendor will:

  • Adopt a consultative approach to the sale to help you create and support an end-to-end solution that meets your specific needs and concerns.
  • Look at all of your processes and advise you on the most impactful (including labor, costs and ROI) tasks for automation.
  • Create an intentional automation plan with a step-by-step plan for automating your facility, beginning with the workflows that are easiest and/or most impactful. Once people are accustomed to working with automation, more complex workflows can be implemented.
  • Arm you with a solid business case to justify the expense, taking into account improved safety, resource re-allocation and operational efficiencies.

3. Develop a Proof of Concept

In one trip, a single AMR tugger can carry what it typically takes two manned forklift trips to transport.

Work with the vendor to develop a proof of concept (PoC) that helps you understand how and where the solution meets your requirements, and specifically for the intended application. This PoC should identify objectives for the robot and measure the results based on specific criteria.

During the PoC, issues that apply across multiple workflows, such as connectivity, integration challenges or unexpected interruptions to the larger production process can be identified and resolved, ensuring the pilot runs smoother and faster.

Ask these questions to define your PoC:

  • Does the robot do what they say it can? Ask the vendor to demonstrate proof of robot capabilities.
  • Does the robot act in a safe and predictable way? Ask the vendor to point out the robot’s safety features and provide documentation for regulatory compliance.
  • Does the robot perform the intended task as expected? Ask for a demonstration of the robot in action.
  • What is not working as expected and how does that affect the deployment? Work with your vendor to identify gaps and develop solutions.
  • What can be done to mitigate the risk for items not working as expected? Discuss ways to improve workflows and infrastructure to eliminate risk areas.

4. Execute and Evaluate a Pilot in the Production Environment

When deploying a pilot project in a production environment, ensuring it’s a natural extension of the PoC helps mitigate risk. During the pilot, remember to:

  • Keep the pilot to a single task in a single workflow. For example, moving a pallet from end of line to a shrink wrap machine.
  • Choose an AMR workflow that limits the exposure of the automated task to a single geographic area, a small group of employees and a clearly defined outcome. For example, moving materials from the inbound dock to storage.
  • Fully train operators interacting with the robots to program and collaborate with them safely. Your vendor should provide training for all operators.
  • Clearly communicate to all employees where the robots will be operating and how to interact with them should they encounter one.
  • Evaluate and measure the pilot, adapting and re-defining it as you go.

5. Move from Pilot to Deployment

Once a pilot has proven out the business value of automation, move from pilot to deployment by:

  • Deploying one task inside a single workflow in a production environment and measuring its effectiveness.
  • Making the necessary tweaks to optimize the process until all efficiency gains possible have been achieved.
  • Measuring progress to evaluate the degree of efficiency gained based on the stated goals.
  • Calculating and understanding how the deployment affects the profitability of your operation.

6. Expand the AMR Deployment to Other Workflows and Facilities

Next, work with the vendor to identify other opportunities to deploy an analogous or similar workflow, and expand to additional workflows and facilities. Now that the value of automation has been quantified, and the risks have been identified and mitigated through the first deployment, it should be easier and smoother to automate additional ones.

Collaborating with a vendor familiar with both your operation and AMR solutions can greatly mitigate the concerns of automating your facility. By establishing a process for moving from evaluation to full-scale deployment, your operation can quickly realize the productivity, efficiency and safety benefits AMRs offer when automating tugging or other material handling tasks. WMHS

As VP of Sales and Marketing at AutoGuide Mobile Robots, Mike Harper is tasked with helping manufacturers and warehouse managers successfully move materials through their facilities. For more information on AutoGuide, visit www.agmobilerobots.com.

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