Is the Jetsons\’ Robot Coming to Your Warehouse?

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Perhaps you may remember the Jetson cartoons and seeing them flying around and interacting with Rosie, their robot? Well, Rosie is turning into a \”Robert\” and he may soon be working in your warehouse.

Competing profitably tomorrow will require considering different ways of doing business due to higher operating costs (labor, overhead costs, taxes and overall operating expenses), lower gross margins (competitive environment due to capacity, pricing transparency, channel convergence) and employee challenges (finding them, training, productivity, retention). One way companies will compete will be in automating repetitive efforts. While we\’re not advocating replacing people, but if there are no people to do the job but the job still needs to get done …

One of these areas will be in the warehouse. Growing companies need to get more done, accurately and cost-effectively. Everyone has heard how Amazon \”employs\” (perhaps deploys is the right word) robots throughout their fulfillment centers. Leading distributors are adding automation in their warehouses. Major manufacturers whom electrical distributors sell have robotic divisions.

So, why not consider deploying them yourselves to augment your warehouse staff (and this is applicable for manufacturers also)?

To gain some insight into what is occurring in this market and if it is viable, and cost-effective, for distributors, we asked Dick Friedman, noted distribution warehouse consultant, for his input. He shared his thoughts below:

\”ROBOTS HAVE STARTED WORKING 

At last, some electrical distributors may be able to use “robots” in their warehouses, but not to usually replace humans. These robots work alongside humans that have “programmed” them, and are termed “collaborative robots”, or “cobots.” They are being deployed by distributors as their cost has decreased, they are easier to program, and are much more flexible while distributors wrestle with warehouse labor challenges … finding people and competing against fulfillment centers with higher wages

After describing two types of robots suitable for electrical distributors, this article overviews the not so small costs of automation and the savings that might justify robots.

Robots Walk, People Don’t

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Credit to Mobile Industrial Robots for photo

The most frequently used type of automation is an “autonomous mobile robot (AMR)”, aka a “mobile collaborative robot.” Think of a battery powered 4-wheel cart that wirelessly drives itself via an onboard computer that steers the cart on a path that depends on the (transmitted) destination (and a stored map of the warehouse layout and what item is stored in which “slot”).  No wires are buried in the floor. For example, if a power transformer needed for an order has been placed on the cart by a human, he/she would use a wireless device to instruct the computer to direct the cart to begin travelling, alone, to the staging area. The white 4-wheel wagon-like device in the picture is an “autonomous transporter”, and can transport up to 220 lbs.

The picker then walks to the aisle and bay where an item for the next order is stored, and is met by an autonomous (perhaps) empty cart that was directed there based on transmitted data for the next order.

As the cart travels, onboard sensors detect people and objects to avoid. Signals from transmitters inform the computer of obstacles that are not permanent, such as a pallet recently placed in the travel path. The “programming” can involve instructing a particular cart to travel, today, to a particular section of the staging area; tomorrow the cart could be instructed to travel to a different section.

By eliminating much of the walking that pickers do, the AMR greatly increases the productivity of pickers, so all orders to be shipped/delivered in a work day can be filled with less overtime; orders are picked more accurately and pickers are happier because much “hard work” is automated for them.

Robots Pick, People Not Needed

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Credit to Dematic for photo

Less frequently used than an AMR is a “piece-picking arm.” Think of the raised arm on the Statue of Liberty, because an automated arm looks like it — a two-piece arm with an “elbow.”  But instead of the lower portion of the arm being attached to a shoulder, it is attached to a heavy base. At the top end of the arm is a “claw”, like a hand but with only 4 “fingers” or some other tool for grasping. The arm is in a vertical position when at rest, but can tilt off the vertical axis and rotate as needed to pick or place. The arm can reach out or up or down to pick/place a piece or carton. Some piece-pick arms are stationery, some are mobile via traveling bases and some elevate. The green grasshopper looking device in the picture is an actual piece-picking device that selects, lifts (via vacuum-suction at the end of the black attached “tool”) an item, positions the item and places it for the next step.

Cameras, sensors and bar code readers, all coordinated by special software, enable the arm to “see” where to pick an item and where to put an item; and to recognize if the item to be picked is not in the designated slot. More advanced arms use software to” learn” and improve; e.g., learn about the shape and location of a particular item, and store that data so future picks (or puts) occur faster.

Piece-picking arms can be programmed to pick items from a shelf to a tote or a cart of some form; and/or programmed to pick from an open carton and to put away the item in a designated slot (e.g., pick and put away circuit breakers). Sensors on the arm enable it to avoid hitting objects and people that should not be in the arm’s path.

Piece-pickers can replace humans, but only for handling small, light-weight items, so for most electrical distributors, some human pickers would still be needed. Collaborating humans would not have to work as long and could concentrate on accurately picking larger items.

Affordable? Cost

One of the reasons that robots have decreased in cost is that newer ones are less expensive to manufacture and maintain — because they cannot carry as much weight or move/execute as fast as “industrial strength” robots. Although they cannot be used for very heavy or oversize items, cartons or boxes (e.g., a bundle of 10’ long rigid, threaded steel conduit), robots can increase productivity and generate cash savings.

The autonomous devices in the pictures cost $30,000 to $50,000 each, and only one is needed obtain savings. The cost does not include the cost of a network of transponders to communicate with the robots and does not include costs for modifying the distributor’s ERP system so it can store warehouse layout and inventory-location data, and can export that data and sales-order data to robots. A network and modification of the ERP system can add $30,000+.

Justification

Although robots are not cheap, justification can come from reduced overtime wages, the costs of recruiting and training people, other HR / payroll and safety benefits and a different type of management oversight. And if a shortage of warehouse personnel is resulting in lost sales because of mistakes, add lost margin to the amount of justification.

The warehouse in which robots might be usable could be a branch warehouse or a distribution center. What matters is the size of the warehouse and the volume of receipts and picking. The larger the floor area of a warehouse, the more walking-distance per sales-order line-item could be eliminated; and the larger the volume, the more total walking-distance could be eliminated. And the larger the area and volume, the greater the number of workers whose overtime pay could be reduced, and for which the cost of turnover could be reduced. As a rough rule of thumb, automation is not likely to be justified for a warehouse with less than 75,000 square feet.

Planning for Automation

No matter what a cobot can, as with most technologies, future generations will do more and cost less. But for many wholesalers, especially those having trouble profitably fully-staffing the warehouse, now is the time to determine if some form of automation should be considered.\”

About the author: Dick Friedman helps electrical distributors prevent warehouse mistakes that lose sales and customers. He can help determine if automation could be practical and cost-justified. He also helps increase warehouse accuracy for wholesalers scanning bar codes but not achieving their desired accuracy level. Contact him via www.GenBusCon.com for a FREE consultation.

Automation of processes, from a business perspective, enables companies to increase throughput with essentially a fixed cost which can help improve profitability and productivity. With margins tightening, perhaps considering processes to be automated makes sense … within the four walls of the office as well as in your warehouse. Target your labor dollars in those areas where thought process and skills are most needed … in serving the customer, not transporting material that can have safety implications. Whether a cobot is in your short-term future isn\’t the issue. The key is gaining familiarity because, as the cost declines, opportunities will rise.

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