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Autonomous mobile robots: can they improve your warehouse?


Connected Technology Solutions looks at how autonomous mobile robots could help your facility become more productive and deal with an increase in demand.

Over the last few months, supply chains across many industries have seen unprecedented levels of demand due to the COVID-19 crisis. For warehouse operators, this has meant that they are under more pressure than ever before to keep up with picking, packing, and logistical activities on site. And, with consumer preference for ecommerce and delivery set to continue its rise, finding ways to boost your processes might soon become a priority.

Autonomous mobile robots (AMR) are one of the most exciting developments in the industry, with more and more facilities incorporating them. In fact, almost a third of warehouse and distribution hubs already make use of robotics or plan to add them soon. We are also set to see a major increase in investment in this field, with the AMR sector projected to be worth $75 billion by 2027.

“Simply put, there has never been a better time to consider them for your warehouse,” Ed Napier Fenning, from supply chain and warehouse specialists Balloon One, says.

What are autonomous mobile robots?

Autonomous mobile robots generally work collaboratively with warehouse operatives, whether that is moving stock during picking, retrieving replenishment or transferring bulk stock As they transport batches to the next stage of processing, they allow workers to move on to the next task.

“Many people think of AMR units in the same terms as automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and, while they perform the same basic function, an AMR is much more sophisticated,” Fenning adds. “This is thanks to on-board sensors, maps, and processing systems that allow them to plan routes, adapt to changes in the environment, and make stock processing decisions on the fly.

“Because they can operate with a high level of autonomy, AMR units have another big advantage over AGVs in that they do not need a specialised infrastructure to work. AGVs typically need quite a lot of adaptations, such as magnetic tape routes on the floor, which can be expensive and require downtime to be put in place. As AMRs are more adaptive, they can work within your current warehouse set-up without any big changes being made.

“AMRs are quite flexible and can be used to move stock within your warehouse or between a number of facilities. They can also perform other tasks, such as using an RFID scanner to accurately assess the level of stock in real time, so you have the most up to date data.”

The triple benefits of AMR

The three primary benefits that AMRs offer are a boost in productivity, a safer working environment and a reduction in human errors. Stock movement is a time-consuming task that can be monotonous for the employee so, by allowing an AMR to undertake it, you will be freeing up your workforce to focus on moving on to the next job. With less human time dedicated to basic handling tasks you will see an uptick in productivity.

“AMR units also offer a number of functional benefits that can aid productivity levels,” Fenning explains. “For one, they can operate for up to 12 hours without needing to charge, so they are ideal for long shifts. And, when they do need power, they can be programmed to return to the charging station themselves, so you will not need to dedicate manpower to basic maintenance on a daily basis.

“Should you decide to incorporate AMRs into your warehouse, you will likely be able to process more orders, increasing your capacity. This could be vital in the future: with consumer demand set to rise further, you will be equipped to deal with more orders and maintain customer satisfaction.”

According to figures from the HSE, almost 500,000 UK workers suffer from musculoskeletal disorders annually. Their analysis also points to manual handling as one of the major causes of these issues. As a warehouse operative is expected to undertake this activity daily, they are at risk. “By automating a large part of this process, you will be, quite literally, taking the strain off your staff,” Fenning says. “In the long run, this should see a reduction of these issues in your workplace, which can have added benefits, such as increased employee morale and less sick leave being taken.”

The final advantage is improving the quality of work. An AMR unit that is programmed to perform a repetitive task, such as stock movement, will be less prone to error than a human carrying out the same job. “Machines simply do not lose concentration, get bored, or suffer from clumsiness, after all,” Fenning continues. “In addition, tasks that require accuracy, like counting stock, can be undertaken more reliably by AMR units, thanks to their sophisticated sensor systems. If you incorporate AMR units into your warehouse, you are likely to see fewer errors on an operational and physical level, with less breakage and more accurate numbers.”

Safety first

Before adopting any new technology, it is natural to wonder whether it is safe. “Thankfully, AMRs are incredibly safe due to their on-board systems,” Fenning concludes. “Most models contain 360⁰ laser scanners that can detect an obstacle in fractions of a second, so any accidents or unexpected items that block their path will be registered. They will then stop and plot a new route that is clear. AMRs also do not move any faster than the average walking speed, so you will not have any fast-moving hazards causing issues in your warehouse, either.”

Read more on robotics – Giving a second life to industrial robots

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