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Supply Chain News: Leading Analysts are Bullish on Use of Mobile Robots in Distribution


Dwight Klappich of Gartner and John Santagate of IDC Expects Rapid Growth of Largely Collaborative Robots in the DC

Feb. 26, 2019
SCDigest Editorial Staff

We're still early in the game, but leading supply chain analysts are bullish on the use of mobile robots in distribution.

Dwight Klappich, a vice president of research at Gartner, refers to the technology as autonomous mobile robots or AMRs. In describing these new age machines, Klappich says "AMRs add intelligence, guidance and sensory awareness to historically "dumb" automated guided vehicles (AGVs), allowing them to operate independently and around humans."

Supply Chain Digest Says...

While there is lots of concern generally about robots killing supply chain jobs, Klappich says "AMRs are primarily collaborative robots that support, not replace, people."

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He adds that AMRs address the historic limitations of traditional AGVs, making them better suited to, and more cost-effective for, complex distribution centers.

"AGVs are not new, but for most of their history, they were brainless and chiefly applicable for simple tasks," Klappich recently wrote as part of Garner's supply chain predictions for 2019. "The lack of intelligence, guidance and sensory awareness were the primary barriers to AGV growth beyond simple point-to-point delivery use cases."

Progress in ARM technology is happening quickly, Klappich adds, noting that new types of AMRs are emerging to address the historic limitations imposed on complex automated DCs.

All of which leads Klappich to predict that by 2023, over 30% of operational warehouse workers will be supplemented, not replaced, by collaborative robots.

"Next-generation AMRs are already transforming warehouse operations, as these truly become more autonomous and intelligent," Klappich says. And mobile robot costs and complexities are coming down, which opens the market to more companies to test and adopt.

Klappich says that while reducing labor costs is naturally the primary demand driver for AMRs, improvements in overall throughput and productivity are growing sources of value, regardless of whether labor costs are reduced.

In Gartner's current Supply Chain Technology User Wants and Needs Survey, developed in partnership with SCDigest, respondents were asked about their investment plans for emerging technologies. Of respondents that indicated they have already invested in or are planning to invest in IoT or robotics, 17% said they will be either replacing conventional material handling automation with robots or buying robots within the next three years.

And when asked what the current state of their organization's pursuit of advanced automation in their DCs or factories is, 60% of respondents said they were conducting knowledge gathering, strategy development and requirements documentation, and another 17% of respondents were piloting AMRs.

While there is lots of concern generally about robots killing supply chain jobs, Klappich says "AMRs are primarily collaborative robots that support, not replace, people."

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He cited a common use case is to improve the order picking process by having a robot follows a person as he or she case picks. When the pick pallet is complete, the AMR then autonomously takes the pallet to the shipping dock, reducing human travel.

Klappich says another use case involves a robotic "pick-to-cart," in which, again, the robot does the moving, and the human simultaneously picks and places multiple orders into totes on the cart.

Finally, there are goods-to-person scenarios where the robots deliver goods to and from people that stay in one place, an application largely pioneered by Kiva Systems and its orange mobile robots. Amazon acquired Kiva in 2012, taking the robots off the market outside of deployment within Amazon.

In all three of those use cases described above, "warehouse workers will be supplemented, not replaced, by robots," Klappich says.

Klappich recommends that companies develop an understanding of the impact of travel time on process efficiency by mapping travel distance and time for work processes.

He adds that companies should "Evaluate the potential to reduce wasted travel through use of AMRs that would take on the responsibility of movements between productivework," and that companies should develop a business case by conducting pilots with one robot platform or more to definitively capture and document travel time reduction opportunities.

Klappich isn't the only analyst bullish on robots. We'll summarize the equally positive views of IDC's John Santagate next week.

Are you equallly bullish on mobile robots in the DC? Why or why not? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.




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