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Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and other forms of automation are catching on quickly in the warehouse, as operators strive to become more efficient while coping with labor shortages, says Chris Anton, executive vice president of global sales with Snapfulfil.
SCB: Why do think automation is taking hold so quickly in the distribution and supply-chain industry?
Anton: One of the things that we're seeing in the industry right now is labor scarcity. Companies are having a very hard time not only attracting but retaining workers. One of the challenges they have is making sure they’re adequately staffed during peak seasons. AMRs allow you to remove some indirect labor, so you become more efficient and productive in your operation.
SCB: How does the AMR, autonomous mobile robot, differ from the AGV, automated guided vehicle?
Anton: With AGVs, you’re basically working on triangulation. There are a number of different technologies you can use for movements in the warehouse. With AMRs, you're getting algorithms that can aid in optimization, combined with artificial intelligence.
SCB: What are the most significant barriers of entry for companies looking to get into the world of AMRs and automation?
Anton: It’s quite different from WMS [warehouse management system] evaluations and selections. With AMRs, folks are looking to measure efficiency and productivity gains. They want metrics that they can share with their executive leadership teams about tROI and cost of ownership.
SCB: You say AMRs are beneficial in a world of labor shortages, yet at the same time aren’t intended to completely replace human beings in the warehouse. How do humans work side by side with AMRs?
Anton: Depending on how the AMR supports specific processes in the warehouse, some providers will offer what's called cellular picking, where you're minimizing travel within a particular zone or aisle. The AMR is doing most of the walking. It allows you to ensure the least amount of human travel.
SCB: So, for instance, a human could be at the pick face doing the actual picking, while the AMR is bringing them to that space and then taking the product to the loading dock. Is that a credible scenario?
SCB: With humans and robots working together, has the issue of safety been successfully addressed?
Anton: Minimum safety standards are going to be released later this year, to ensure that AMRs operate safely.
SCB: By the way, the coronavirus is having a huge impact within the warehouse and on supply chains in general. We has been the effect of the pandemic on the business?
Anton: Companies sometimes forget the contingencies they need to have in place in the event of a disruption. How do they go about minimizing its impact, so that they don’t fall into backorder situations and longer lead times? What happens when product does hit the warehouse? Am I going to bring in temps? Are there enough of them to fulfill those back orders? The challenge that e-commerce providers have had is dealing with suppliers in China. What happens if a primary supplier goes out of business? All of a sudden they have to find a secondary supplier.
SCB: Getting back to AMRs, what might the technology look like five to 10 years from now?
Anton: I see a lot of sophistication coming to the marketplace. You're going to see more agnostic solutions when it comes to working with either WMS or warehouse execution systems. You're also going to see analytics playing a role in terms of AMRs. How can we use information to drive better outcomes, not only for the sake of efficiency, but also for making sure that orders get out with the service levels that customers require?
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