Can autonomous mobile robots improve your warehouse operation?

In the current climate, warehouses are under more stress than ever before to keep up with demand, but could autonomous mobile robots ease the load a little? Here, Ed Napier-Fenning, from supply chain tech experts Balloon One, investigates the impact these machines could have on your facility.

With shops closed and lockdown conditions in place, the past two months have seen more and more people turning to online ordering when they need groceries or other goods. For many businesses in the logistics sector, this unprecedented demand has put a never seen before strain on their supply chain. Therefore, it makes sense that you may be looking for ways to optimise your operation.

One of the ways that many firms are beginning to boost productivity is by incorporating robotics into their warehouse facilities. Nearly a third of warehouse and distribution hubs already have robots or are planning on adding them soon (Logistics Manager), while the autonomous mobile robot industry is set to be worth $75 billion by 2027 (IDTechEx).

For the warehousing sector, it’s autonomous mobile robots (AMR) that are leading the way towards an automated future — but what are they and what advantages can they offer? In this article, I will provide an overview of this technology, as well as look at some of the benefits.

What are autonomous mobile robots?

Autonomous mobile robots are robots that can handle a variety of stock activities working alongside warehouse operatives, including picking, replenishment, and stock movement. In some ways, they’re similar to automated guided vehicles (AGVs) in that they can carry out bulk stock movement, but they are equipped with sophisticated sensors, operational mapping, and processing systems that allow them to make route planning and process decisions in real-time. This means that they can engage in a much wider choice of tasks than AGVs, which are purely designed for stock movement.

Another big difference is that, unlike AGVs, they don’t require significant amounts of infrastructure — like magnetic tape routes on the floor — to function. This means that they can quickly adapt to an existing facility without the need for big changes that can be expensive or lead to increased downtime.

Typically, AMR units are used to transport stock that has been picked by a warehouse operative. This means that the employee does not need to move the picked goods to the packing area, effectively de-coupling the warehouse operative from the walking component of a pick run allowing for far greater efficiency. AMRs can be also be used to transport stock between locations in the warehouse, from production lines to storage, or for virtually any other movement task. Some units are equipped with RFID scanners that are used for stock checking activities, giving businesses access to even more accurate, real-time stock data.

What benefits can AMR offer your warehouse?

Productivity will be boosted

The primary role of an AMR in your warehouse will be the movement of stock, which will greatly free up your workforce by reducing the time they spend doing basic handling tasks

In terms of functionality, AMR units can typically go for 12 hours without needing to charge thanks to their high capacity batteries. What’s more, when the robots are low on power, they can even return to a charge station themselves. This means that the requirement for human involvement in general day-to-day maintenance is minimal.

While there are still some limitations to the sort of operations suitable to operate AMRs — such as product portfolio and order profile — if you are able to incorporate AMRs into your warehouse, you will see a boost in the capacity of orders you are able to process, as well as elevated stock fulfilment. In the current climate, when demand is higher than ever, you will be able to hit your targets and benefit from customer satisfaction.

Improved health and safety

In the UK, nearly 500,000 workers suffer from musculoskeletal disorders each year, where manual handling is estimated to be a major cause (HSE). In a warehouse environment, where this type of activity is commonplace, the option of completely automating a large capacity of this work should result in less strain being put on your workforce each day.

Reduction in human error

Incorporating AMR units into your warehouse will see human error reduced. For instance, a robot that is programmed to do a monotonous task automatically, like stock movement, will be less prone to error than a human performing it. And, for jobs like stock counting, an AMR with an RFID sensor will be much more accurate than someone counting themselves.

Great return on investment

Thanks to the greater productivity levels an AMR can offer, your warehouse will soon see a return on its investment as profits and customer satisfaction increase. And, if you want to incorporate automation but keep initial costs low, you’ll find AMR units can adapt to your existing set up without the need to invest in overhauling your space.

Are AMR units safe to use?

As with any new technology, there’s bound to be questions over safety. The good news is that AMRs are more than capable of becoming part of your busy warehouse environment thanks to their clever safety systems. The devices are fitted with advanced sensors that can detect obstacles, allowing them to stop and reroute very quickly. Generally, AMRs do not move quicker than the average walking speed, either, so they shouldn’t pose a hazard in this regard.

I hope this article has provided you with an overview of autonomous mobile robots and some of the benefits they can offer. Consider them for your own warehouse and you could increase productivity and customer satisfaction.

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Ed Napier-Fenning is sales manager at Balloon One and has over 13 years' experience in the logistics sector at a senior level. The firm specialises in delivering end to end supply chain solutions through integrated enterprise resource planning, warehouse management, and transport management systems.

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