Next-generation autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are transforming warehouse operations, as these truly become more autonomous and intelligent.
Costs and complexities are coming down, which opens the market to more companies. Reducing labor is the primary demand drivers, but improvements in overall throughput and productivity are growing sources of value, regardless of whether labor is reduced.
In Gartner’s supply chain technology user wants and needs (UWAN) study respondents were asked about their investment plans for emerging technologies. Of respondents that indicated they have already, or are planning to, invest in IOT or robotics 17 percent said they will either be replacing conventional material handling automation with robots or buying robots within the next 3 years. Furthermore, when asked what the current state of their organization’s pursuit of advanced automation in their warehouse or factories is, 60 percent are conducting knowledge gathering, strategy development, and requirements documentation and another 17 percent are piloting.
AMRs add intelligence, guidance and sensory awareness to historically "dumb" automated guided vehicles (AGVs), allowing them to operate independently and around humans. AMRs address the historic limitations of traditional AGVs, making them better suited to, and more cost-effective for, complex warehouses. AGVs are not new, but for most of their history they were brainless and chiefly applicable for simple tasks. The lack of intelligence, guidance and sensory awareness were the primary barriers to AGV growth beyond simple point-to-point delivery use cases. However, as computing power has grown and the cost of sensors has declined, the market for AMRs, i.e., smart AGVs, has grown significantly. As this market has evolved, the capabilities of these units has improved and new types of AMRs are emerging to address the historic limitations imposed on complex automated warehouses.
AMRs are primarily collaborative robots that support, not replace, people. One common use case is an automated order-picking process where the robot follows a person as they case pick and then autonomously navigates between aisles and to the shipping dock. Another can be robotic pick-to-cart where again the bot does the moving and the human simultaneously picks multiple orders into totes on the cart. Finally, there are goods-to-person scenarios where the robots deliver goods to people who stay in one place. This is why we believe that warehouse workers will be supplemented not replaced by robots.
Robots will do what they do well, which is moving goods around, and people will continue to do what they do best, which is performing tasks requiring complex motor control. To successfully make this transition companies should develop an understanding of the impact of travel time on process efficiency by mapping travel distance and time for work processes. They should consider using or investing in labor management systems as a means to capture travel data at the transaction level. From this they can evaluate the potential to reduce wasted travel through use of AMRs that would take on the responsibility of movements between productive work. Finally, this will help them develop a business case by conducting pilots with one or more robot platforms to definitively capture and document travel-time reduction opportunities.
Gartner predicts that by 2023, over 30 percent of operational warehouse workers will be supplemented, not replaced, by collaborative robots. With 17 percent already piloting mobile robots we expect a significant percentage of these initiatives to go to scale over the next two years. We also expect that half or more of the 60 percent of companies currently in knowledge-gathering mode to move on to formal pilots over that the same period with a significant percentage of those eventually going to scale in the next four to five years. This level of growth in demand combined with AMRs primarily supplementing people is why we predict that 30 percent of warehouse workers will be complemented by robots.
Dwight Klappich is Vice President with Gartner Inc.
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