Material handling automation is a process, not a purchase

Overview:

  • Automation has high potential to improve efficiency in logistics
  • Acquiring, deploying and maintaining robots represents a large initial cost and ongoing optimization
  • Developing an appropriate automation strategy is critical, and partnerships are key

As automation technology matures in the material handling and logistics fields, it is increasingly common for logistics, warehouse, and process managers to think about integrating robotics and AI-automated processes—and for good reason.

Industrial handling automation offers real advantages in safety and efficiency, which are only improving with time. Robotic intelligence is maturing rapidly and is able to solve issues like queuing, responding to equipment and pathfinding with increasing sophistication. Better technology and continuous learning through application have reduced the required preparation needed for deploying robotics and simplified integration into existing processes. However, even as the field matures, there are still numerous technical and operational challenges that remain.

Think partnerships, not vendors

Challenges aside—automation provides a competitive edge, one that no business can afford to ignore for long. But training and acquiring skilled staff to manage a fleet of robots and complex equipment, not to mention the challenges of planning, programming, and testing for deployment represent a large initial and ongoing investment of time, capital, and human resources.

Usually, the first step for most businesses starts with thinking of robots like computers or devices. While there are some parallels—automation is better understood as a process, not an out of box purchase. Businesses that wish to automate are better suited to looking for a partner first, rather than looking at hardware.

Finding the right equipment, then designing a plan for deployment, integration, maintenance, and upgrade support is a daunting challenge to handle completely in-house, especially when technology and processes are still developing. Navigating the various software and hardware on offer can actually wind up hurting businesses if done without the right expertise. Therefore, many businesses choose to seek partnerships to automate, and why finding the right partner, one who considers the full lifecycle of an automated fleet and is dedicated to 360-degree service is key.

>>>Watch: Aden Group’s automation partner ASAP Rental designs AGV solution for Namei

Process and strategy are the first steps

Automation takes time and is an intensive process that requires reimagining operations and making commitments to change. And as with any long-term process, it’s important to think in terms of both goals and first steps. The goals are clear—safety, efficiency, scalability. But instead of focusing too much on technical specifications, a facility’s operational needs should be approached more holistically. It’s important to think thoroughly about a strategy.

The first steps in the process start with a careful look at your facility in terms of layout, operations, and processes. Robotics are smarter now, yes, but like anything with intelligence, it requires planning and training to integrate into a workforce. Analyzing your facility, equipment, and operations is a critical first step—what exactly can be automated? What company’s AGVs suit the job best? Thinking about strategy first before moving to hardware is critical and will avoid costly missteps in this process.

There’s no shortcut to experience and expertise

By way of analogy, let’s think about deploying a set of workstations for CAD or some other purpose. Ask IT, deploying a new set of computer hardware in your facility is a large undertaking—now imagine if each computer had to be programmed with accurate spatial data and operational instructions. This is the singular challenge of automation. Deployment can take months, and inaccurate data can mean inoperable equipment. If a part of your facility has a graded incline, this data has to be programmed appropriately, or the robot may not be able to scale it.

Think of this deployment process as training for your fleet of robots. Hiring the right personnel is of course key, but providing them with the best training, and putting their intelligence to work is the only way to ensure they perform as required. The same is true with robots, though their training is directly programmed in.

Building and iterating a competitive edge

Integrating the robotics and automated equipment into the software that runs the facility is critical, and yields important dividends—scalability, iterability, and safety. Integrating robotics and automation into the facility control software (the ERP or WMS) improves their visibility in the management process—and what can’t be seen can’t be managed. This level of integration will also make automation another process that is continually optimized in regular operations, and ensure normal functioning.

Iterating and optimizing automation means keeping pace with the progress in a fast-moving field of technology. This poses another challenge—every year AGVs and automated handling equipment are faster, more precise, and more integrable into teams. This means that agility is a priority, a key factor in strategy, the same as analysis and deployment reliability. Finding a partner who prioritizes agility in providing their service is critical. It’s important to not be hung up on finding ‘the next big thing’ in automation, but rather a partner who can provide service that integrates incremental progress without disrupting operations.

Finding the right partner for safer, human-centric, and more efficient warehouses

The purpose of automation is as much efficiency-oriented as it is human-centric. As workloads in logistics skyrocket with global demand, it becomes ever more critical to ensure workplace safety. Robots, as everyone knows, don’t get tired, and don’t make the same kinds of costly, dangerous mistakes that can happen on the floor in a warehouse. Reducing forklift and loading accidents means a safer and healthier workplace.

This doesn’t mean displacing existing workforces—it means providing them with more skills, more safety, and more assurance that they are not overworked, overstressed, or exposed to undue risk. Workers can step back from repetitive, grinding tasks and to value-adding tasks. Automation is a chance to unlock human potential as much as technological potential.

Automation is a challenge—but also an incredible opportunity for logistics. The challenges of planning, deployment integration and upgrading mean that a business requires high-skill partners, ones that take into account the facility’s operations and characteristics, reliably taking strategy, data, hardware, and integration seriously. The opportunities mean that logistics in warehouses, ports, and depots can begin to explore new vistas in safety, efficiency, and employee development.

 
 

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