There is a quote from Israelmore Ayivor, an influencer in personal development and leadership that really resonates with me: “Success is not obtained overnight. It comes in instalments; you get a little bit today, a little bit tomorrow until the whole package is given out. The day you procrastinate, you lose that day's success.”
When someone tells me they don’t have time to look into Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) as a solution for a well-known labour or workflow problem, especially someone responsible for keeping supply chain operations on track, I remind them of the time and value wasted by workers on jobs that are better done by robots.
You wouldn’t ask a pilot to fill in for a flight attendant when there’s a flight attendant shortage. You would make sure every available pilot was in a cockpit so that you don’t have to ground planes (and lose millions of dollars of potential revenue).
So, why would you not spend some time on research that will ultimately help protect your bottom line and likely improve it? You want better margins, right? Or at the very least, protect the ones you have now.
Process stability, cloud flexibility
The moment you put AMRs to work moving materials, bins, carts or pallets, you’re returning money straight back into your operation. Workflows become consistent while processes become steady, and people become more available to do everything else that’s required to keep your manufacturing, processing or distribution operation running smoothly, even in surge periods.
It’s all because you’re enlisting reliable, dynamic mobile robots to do jobs that can be physically and mentally exhausting for people. AMRs are intentionally managed in the cloud so that you can keep your operation grounded and stable as circumstances change relative to labour, lead times, order volumes, etc. I don’t need to go through the full list. You know the factors that affect your business better than I do.
The point is that you need to be able to remotely login, move some robots around (just like you would people) and then get on with your day. Or you need to be able to hand the reigns over to other people who may not be onsite. With a cloud-based robotics automation platform like AMRs, you can all, collaboratively, maintain full control over your operation and keep orders moving into the market.
The AMRs will show up where you need them, on time, every time. They will come to you, or go wherever you need, on demand. They will help train new workers on the job. They will help make your most seasoned, highly skilled workers even stronger performers. They will give them time back in their days – time better used to receive, process, produce, pick, pack and ship more orders.
Think you’ve done ‘enough digitalisation’ for now?
I sometimes hear an objection along the lines of, “things have already started moving faster since I digitalised my operation. I’m good for now. I don’t want to do anything that could disrupt the day-to-day flow.” If you see digitalisation as the finish line, you set yourself up for a slow decline (and permanent end to business). The digitisation of data is just the first step to creating a more resilient, future-ready operation. Digitalisation of workflows is next. Once you’ve laid this groundwork then it becomes easier to automate as part of a multi-year, incremental improvement strategy.
That doesn’t mean that automating one part of your business will take years. AMRs can be rolled out in hours. You can have multiple workflows automated in days. That’s actually the beauty of AMRs. It’s one of the fastest ways to drive business process improvements and respond to workers’ calls for relief. You won’t be bogged down with complex, waterfall, resource-intensive modernisation projects. You can constantly refine and scale automated workflows for years on end using the same solution. So, when you are shorthanded, you can put more AMRs in the field to help fill in or help onboard new workers after hiring sprees.
When you start to see a specific team struggling to keep up, or more orders coming in or more rubbish that needs to be removed, you can reassign AMRs or put more units on the floor temporarily. You could also realign teams and processes permanently based on people’s capabilities with business needs and bring in robots to take on the tasks that would prove disruptive if people had to do them – like material, works in progress or inventory movements.
I could write a book on what you should automate from the first mile through the last, though my colleagues have written plenty of articles and blog posts on this topic, with details on how to automate everything from manufacturing and packaging quality checks to CPG forecasting, demand planning and sourcing decisions.
At the very least, you should be using a flexible automation solution such as AMRs for every task that would traditionally require people to walk, push, pull or carry something from one aisle, station or line to the next. Walking may be good for people, but it’s not a good use of time for business, at least not in manufacturing, distribution, 3PL or warehousing operations.
No one expects you to have domain expertise in robotics automation, even if you have been managing highly automated production or processing lines for decades. AMRs, though robots, are not the same as robot arms or Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) or any other robotics automation technology out there. Plus, you’re an expert who uses technology as a tool, not the one who develops technology tools for manufacturing, warehousing or distribution.
A successful leader knows when to lean on others. Find a who has a well-defined discovery, solution design, deployment and support process in place. AMRs are versatile, but they need to be configured to support a specific application and integrate seamlessly with human-involved workflows to deliver the benefits you want.
Ready to look more at how AMRs could help your warehouse or plant? Take a look here.
About the author
As Vice President and General Manager, Robotics Automation, at Zebra, Jim Lawton is focused on helping customers harness intelligent automation and advanced robotics to transform their operations with greater efficiency, higher productivity, and lower costs.
His experience in developing and delivering leading-edge innovation – including early days in e-commerce, supply chain optimisation, and collaborative robotics – has shaped his passion for helping manufacturing, supply chain and logistics organisations capitalise on the intersection of technology and business performance.
Jim holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from Tufts University, an MS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT, and an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, where he was a Fellow in the inaugural MIT Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program.