Autonomous mobile robots finally finding their place in modern manufacturing

March 28, 2022

"Workers can stay where they are, and the AMR will meet them there."

Zebra Technologies' Melonee Wise

Manufacturers are no strangers to industrial robots. Manufacturers were among the earliest adopters, with automation central to Industry 4.0 ambitions. Yet, many have been laggards when it comes to autonomous mobile robots (AMR), mainly because they have struggled to define the direct and indirect return on investment (ROI).

But with manufacturers increasingly fulfilling drop-ship orders for retailers or, in some cases, opening direct-to-consumer retail channels alongside traditional distribution channels, the value of AMRs is becoming easier to articulate.  

For example, a high growth, online custom-framing company that had rapidly scaled its manufacturing operations to meet customer demand decided to deploy AMRs to automate the movement of frame components between various production stations. The payback period ended up being a mere three months, with the investment delivering a 70% productivity boost. And since deploying AMRs, one leading distributor of automotive components increased its throughput by 25% and regained 13% of its floor space.

I’ve even seen picking productivity more than double among visually impaired warehouse workers once AMRs started working alongside them. 

Real-world stats like these have manufacturers rethinking the risk versus rewards of AMRs, especially as they start to think like the warehouse/DC operators they’re becoming.

Why AMRs versus AGVs?

The short answer is that automated guided vehicles (AGV) only have collision-avoidance capabilities, so they’re restricted to well-defined travel lanes. AMRs, however, have advanced navigation technology and obstacle-avoidance technologies that enable them to move dynamically and efficiently around facilities, all the way to the worker’s current location, wherever that may be. So, instead of having to go to a designed AGV meetup point to drop off or pick up items, workers can stay where they are, and the AMR will meet them there.

As such, workers can call upon AMRs for on-demand retrievals and deliveries or to transport small parts and items from one work cell to another throughout the production environment. Once the AMR arrives for a pickup, workers can quickly handoff work-in-progress (WIP) parts or materials then turn their attention back to the next task on their list. The AMR ensures the items get to the right place on time, so production is not held up. Likewise, on the receiving end, the worker can stay focused and productive until the AMR arrives.

In storage, packing, staging and loading areas, AMRs can also run picked or packed goods, allowing workers to stay in their zones and lean teams to handle tremendous workloads without going home tired every day.

Also worth noting—AMRs can make new-employee onboarding easy by meeting pickers in aisles and guiding them through pick lists. AMRs can quite literally tell workers what to grab from a shelf or location using voice commands delivered through headsets or visual instructions provided on heads-up displays, wearable mobile computers, or AMR-mounted tablets. The pick list is generated by the warehouse management system (WMS), passed to an optimization algorithm, then executed on the robot.

Once the pick list is complete, the AMR moves items to the packing, staging or loading station, depending on the outbound workflow. Another AMR then steps in to help the worker start moving through the next list. This enables associates to spend 100% of their time picking items instead of 50% of their time moving material around facilities—or any time wondering what to do or where to go next.

Another less-advertised labor benefit: cloud-based AMRs, if deployed as a robot-as-a-service (RaaS) solution, don’t require capital investments or a long-term commitment. They can be remotely configured and online within a day and scaled exceptionally quickly, enabling manufacturers to boost or stabilize operational velocity and capacity on a whim.

Rethinking the meaning of the “smart factory”

Despite progressive implementations of Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) and robotics-driven systems, many manufacturers are still seeing production capacity mired by a lack of worker augmentation and workflow automation. Each time a person has to leave their station to go retrieve or deliver materials, work essentially stops. Even if it only takes 30 seconds to make the roundtrip to meet an AGV or conveyor, minutes of productivity will be lost over the course of the day—and days over the course of a year. Overall production and fulfillment capacity declines, along with revenue potential and customer satisfaction.

So, in the coming months, expect to see more AMRs rolled out in factories and warehouses as line of business leaders, engineers, and IT specialists aim to keep unnecessary walking from becoming a bottleneck for success.

Melonee Wise is vice president of robotics automation with Zebra Technologies