Supply chains have been slow and disruption-prone in the COVID-19 era, largely because of operational deficiencies and a lack of skilled labor.
Automated mobile robots (AMRs) can address both challenges by replacing outdated technologies and giving the workforce a boost of artificial manpower.
Here are some ways that AMRs are fulfilling the potential of automation and getting modern supply chains back on track.
How Do AMRs Function?
An AMR is a type of robot that can perform tasks without human guidance. It’s the next step in the evolution of autonomous robots, coming after the autonomous guided vehicle (AGV) that could only do certain predetermined tasks under close supervision. While AGVs are still useful for transporting materials and working alongside human employees, AMRs bring more value.
AMRs use a variety of sensory technologies including cameras, magnetic tapes and lasers to process their environments, which isn’t a new concept. AMRs are so special because of their artificial intelligence and machine learning software. When a sensor identifies an unexpected obstacle, the built-in software can immediately reroute the robot and continue its assigned task.
What Are the Different Types of AMRs?
AMRs fall into three broad categories based on their functions — transportation, order picking and sortation. The main AMRs for transportation are self-driving versions of traditional vehicles — namely self-driving trucks that can reduce congestion and fuel consumption on busy supply routes. Self-driving forklifts and pallet jacks are other common examples.
The main AMR devices for picking orders are industrial robotic arms, which fill the positions of assembly line workers in warehouses or manufacturing plants. There are numerous types of robotic arms that play key roles in supply chain automation, including multipurpose six-axis robots and collaborative robots that are designed to work alongside humans.
High-speed tilt tray robots are the primary AMRs that warehouses use for sortation. They include a simple reclining tray and barcode reader to classify products into their appropriate incoming or outgoing lines, but the AI software works at a much faster and more efficient rate than human sorters.
Benefits of Using AMRs
AMRs are admittedly challenging to adopt because of their deployment and reconfiguration costs compared to AGVs. Feeding an autonomous robot new information and keeping it in good condition is hard work. However, the long-term benefits far outweigh the costs. Here are the biggest reasons why supply chain professionals should invest in AMRs.
Compensates for Lost Labor
The most immediate benefit of using AMRs is the compensation for lost labor. Wholesale trade and manufacturing were among the hardest hit industries by the Great Resignation that took place from 2020 to 2022. These sectors have more than one million combined job openings in the U.S. as of March 2023.
Rather than attempting to hire more employees, companies can fill those empty roles with AMRs instead. AMRs are the ideal devices for the mundane and repetitive tasks that make up a majority of supply chain processes. Robots can move, pick and sort the entire inventory while humans continue to occupy more people-oriented departments.
Greater Supply Chain Efficiency
Outsourcing monotonous tasks to AMRs leads to greater efficiency at every step in the supply chain. They remove human limitations from the equation, leading to fewer errors and allowing operations to run 24/7. Managers no longer need to account for independent variables such as an employee’s health or mood on any given day.
Fleets of self-driving trucks can transport goods with better driving techniques and thus fewer delays. Self-driving forklifts, pallet jacks and other warehouse devices can move items to their assigned destinations with pinpoint accuracy and cause no damage. Industrial robotic arms also operate with surgical precision when assembling and packaging products, minimizing waste.
Safer Work Environment
Implementing autonomous robots also creates a safer work environment. AMRs use safety-rated LiDAR systems, one example being the OTTO Lifter. It has a 360-degree view of its surroundings, allowing it to avoid accidents that may lead to injuries.
Instead of having a bunch of employees driving forklifts around a warehouse with innumerable obstacles, managers can switch to AMRs that navigate around obstacles without error or hesitation. Similarly, performing dangerous tasks like incisions, welds or handling hazardous materials is much safer in the hands of a robot rather than a human.
Higher Product Quality and Quantity
When a company maximizes its safety and efficiency, the inevitable result is higher product quality and quantity. Every item that an AMR handles will look and function the same. On the rare chance that a defect occurs, managers can add that information to the AMR’s software to ensure it never happens again.
Manufacturing products with this level of accuracy also leads to a higher overall output. AMRs can’t directly solve the shortages of raw materials in various industries, but they can get the most out of the limited resources a company has. Moreover, AMRs can absorb new data, make objective decisions and adapt to external variables in ways that humans can’t.
The final benefit of using AMRs in supply chain operations is significant savings — both from operational costs and scaling. Safe and efficient operations yield great savings because companies don’t have to pay for equipment damage, defective products, employee accidents and other disruptions. Labor costs are also much lower with AMRs included in the workforce.
AMRs are also highly flexible, so businesses can add them to their growing operations as needed. This unmatched scalability allows managers to free up capital for other expenditures and add more AMR units over time. Investing in a new technology in the long run is more affordable than modifying or replacing a fixed system in the short term.
Keeps Up With Supply Chain Trends
Lastly, businesses that invest in AMRs have made a critical step in following the latest supply chain trends. With the rise of lightning-fast e-commerce and changing customer expectations, the demand for speed and efficiency has never been higher. Human employees in a depleted workforce can’t keep up with this demand, but AMRs can.
Armed with scalable robotic solutions, companies can adapt to the changing attitudes of their customers without missing a beat. They can easily change an AMR’s functionality by adding new data to the software instead of causing downtime to upgrade the facility. AMRs operate independently and can shift to a new task or location without hiccups.
AMRs Are the Present, Not the Future
New technologies like AMRs often get discussed in terms of future benefits, which is a mistake. AMRs are the present, not the future. They are playing critical roles in supply chain optimization right now, and they will only become more indispensable as time goes on. Business leaders need to invest in AMRs now if they want to overcome today’s economic challenges.