The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the world. It has made us much more aware of the risks of pathogens, but also how much we value things we previously may have taken for granted, such as public transport, meeting friends, vacations, schooling, and labour-intensive work operations. When it comes to warehouse management, will the disease create a change in direction for the industry, or at least quicken the adoption of automation technology?

The role of warehouses has changed over the years, from a small part of the supply chain to a more strategic and complex facility at the heart of a business. A shift towards e-commerce is driving an evolution in how warehouses are managed, requiring fast, economical shipping and delivery of products to customers. New e-commerce sites are specifically built for automation, enabling them to operate smoothly and efficiently. Intralogistics or brownfield sites, on the other hand, are more complex, but automation is becoming easier to achieve and is increasing across all sectors as advances in technology give greater flexibility to adapt to individual warehouse needs.

But what is motivating businesses to automate their warehouses? Historically, warehousing and production sites that heavily rely on human labour have struggled to fulfil staffing needs. Indeed, a recent MHI report detailed that, even before the pandemic, attracting and retaining staff was already the biggest challenge faced by warehouse facilities, closely followed by customers continually expecting and demanding faster response times and lower costs. Automation provides solutions to both issues.

Of course, efficiency and cost-saving are important factors, but the recent COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the need for businesses to operate with reduced reliance on human resources. A sharp rise in e-commerce created by the pandemic, as people were often forced to shop online, saw businesses needing to ‘up their game’ in this area. By using automation to cut the link between sales and staffing overheads, warehouses become more easily scalable and adaptable to such sudden growths in sales.

The pandemic has placed a spotlight on the levels of resilience in operations and showed that those with higher levels of automation have been much better placed to react to changes in global markets created by the virus. But automation is not just about resilience in times of crisis or replacing jobs, or about finding ways to meet customer demands and reach efficiency levels required: it can also improve occupational health and safety for existing staff by taking on dangerous or repetitive tasks, or jobs that have a higher risk of injury.

All that said, we cannot hide from the fact that automation reduces staffing overheads; it is one of the core bases of a return on investment. This may be perceived as negative; however, it is often needed for warehouses to simply remain competitive and viable. Although there will be a decrease in numbers of manual labourers required, the total number of jobs in an area may be better protected as facilities become more economically viable and less dependent upon the cost level of the local workforce. Often, the alternative will be that the warehouse or production area is ‘offshored’ to a region where wage levels are lower.

At the Hitachi ABB Power Grids plant in Lenzburg, Switzerland, for example, a project to automate semiconductor manufacturing was required for the facility to remain cost-effective in this high-cost location. An Autonomous Warehouse Management System was jointly implemented by the technology leader ABB and BlueBotics SA, the global reference for autonomous navigation and fleet management technologies. Involving over 50 robots and 14 AGVs, the project not only secured the future of the plant in Switzerland, but also led to it being awarded ‘Factory of the Year 2018’ in the ‘Excellent Location Safeguarding by Digitalization’ category.

Mitigating the risk of disease

COVID-19 has shined a stark light on businesses’ areas of weakness, and warehouse management is no exception. Whether there will be a pre-COVID and post-COVID era, or whether this is a new normal we need to deal with, businesses would be foolish to assume they will never be faced with this situation again. Automation adds resilience and mitigates the risk of spread of disease, enabling businesses to operate and protect their workforce. In an increasingly digital world, the technologies available offer autonomous and remote operation strategies that remove the need for physical human presence.

Automation technology: AGVs

Almost any manual warehouse process can be replaced by automation, but the return on investment determines where it makes sense to automate. Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR’s) are two rapidly growing features of modern warehouse facilities that show a clear return on investment in terms of saved costs and increased efficiency. For moving and managing materials, the technology available today offers warehouses immense flexibility and scalability to meet current and changing needs. Vehicles come with different options to navigate an area, from simple ‘line following’ to highly customizable natural feature navigation. For brownfield sites, features such as natural navigation and easy configuration, give the flexibility to meet highly individual needs without huge installation overheads.

Even where the return on investment is obvious, it is not the right approach to simply automate a manual process as is. Instead, the operation should be reevaluated to ensure the automation can be optimized. For example, AGVs can negotiate obstacles by either waiting for the object to move, termed ‘path following’, or by moving around an object like a person would, termed ‘obstacle avoidance.’ Which to choose will depend upon the application but, although obstacle avoidance to replicate human actions may appear the most efficient solution, it is proven to significantly reduce vehicle efficiency. If, however, the application is in an area with a lot of human traffic or moving obstacles, obstacle avoidance may be the only way to ensure the vehicle can achieve its goals.

AGV fleet management software further enables even more flexible and scalable application of AGVs and provides the adaptability for an automation project to be implemented at a pace that suits the wider business strategy.

Summary

There was already a clear, strong trend towards automation operations before the devastating COVID-19 pandemic struck. In this new era, however, which has increased the focus on disease transmission and risks, this trend is likely to accelerate. Automation provides an inherent resilience to a shortage of human labour today and into the future: a case proven by the 200,000 robots employed by Amazon, without which the efficient service the company provides today would simply not be possible.

Although automating operations will ensure greater resilience in the future, the challenge for supply chains will shift towards finding and retaining staff with the skills to operate and maintain automation systems, requiring a corresponding shift in education. When selecting technologies such as AGVs or mobile robots, consideration should therefore be given to robustness, reliability, and ease of operation. With many technology options available, warehouse managers should be sure they are getting the software, return on investment and flexibility their business needs.

BlueBotics is the reference in natural feature navigation. With its 20 years of industry experience, the company provides the autonomous navigation technology (ANT®) and expert support customers need to bring their AGV, automated forklift or mobile robot successfully to market. Today, there are more than 2,000 ANT® driven vehicles in operation worldwide. www.BlueBotics.com

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