How autonomous mobile robots can improve your warehouse operation

With increasing strain being put on the logistics sector, could an investment in autonomous mobile robots for your warehouse be a smart move? Here, Ed Napier-Fenning, from supply chain tech experts Balloon One takes a look at the benefits adding AMR could have.

Over the last month or so, the logistics sector has seen an unprecedented surge in demand as many brick and mortar locations have closed their doors and the wider public has locked themselves down at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the supply chain struggles to keep up with this wave, it would not be a surprise if you were looking at ways you could optimise your operation for efficiency.

A rising number of facilities are starting to incorporate robotics into their picking and packing systems as they look to boost efficiency — 31% of warehouses and distribution centres already use or are planning to use them (Logistics Manager). Autonomous mobile robots, especially, are becoming a focus, with the global market for AMRs set to be worth $75 billion by 2027 (IDTechEx).

But just what are AMRs and how can they improve your warehouse operation? Below, I’m going to give you a quick overview and benefits of these useful robots.

What are autonomous mobile robots?

Autonomous mobile robots are not wholly dissimilar to automatic guided vehicles (AGV) in that are capable of picking up and moving stock around a warehouse or even between separate facilities.

However, while other types of AGV rely on infrastructure to navigate the environment, like magnetic tape routes on flooring, an AMR is intelligent, using sophisticated sensors, maps, and processing equipment to plot optimised paths and avoid obstacles in real time.

How are they integrated into the supply chain?

One of the main strengths of AMRs is their adaptability. Where AGVs rely on having an environment that is revised to their needs, allowing them to operate within their limitations, an AMR is very adaptable and can deal with a pre-existing logistics facility. This means that these robots can be integrated into almost any situation without needing to make wide-scale changes to a warehouse.

A typical usage of an AMR unit will see them transporting stock that a warehouse employee has picked, removing the need for that employee to move the batch to the processing area. The worker can then focus on the next task on their agenda. Robots can be utilised at any stage of the supply chain where stock movement uses up valuable time, whether that’s transporting supplies around the warehouse or from a production line to nearby storage.

AMR units, while primarily used for stock movement, can also assist with other tasks. For instance, there are some models that can be adapted to stocktaking activities, using on board RFID scanners to accurately count inventory for accurate, real time data.

What benefits can AMRs bring to your warehouse?

Autonomous mobile robots can bring a number of benefits to your warehouse, including a boost in productivity, and reductions to workplace injury and human error. Here are four key benefits.

They will boost productivity

As we have mentioned, introducing AMR to your warehouse process will reduce the amount of time your staff will spend transporting stock, freeing them up to move onto the next task. AMR units can also run for upwards of 12 hours without needing to recharge, and some can even dock themselves without the need for human intervention.

You’ll find these low maintenance robots can significantly boost levels of productivity, allowing you to process more orders and achieve elevated stock fulfilment in the same timeframe. So, in the current climate, when consumer demand is higher than ever before, you will be able to exceed your targets and ensure customer satisfaction.

They can improve worker safety

By removing the need for long periods of stock handling, AMR units can improve safety conditions in your warehouse. Considering that almost 500,000 UK workers suffer musculoskeletal disorders each year and manual handling is estimated to be a major cause (HSE), this should be welcome news.

They reduce human error

When a programmed AMR is delivering stock to a location, there is less chance that it will make an error than if a member of staff was doing so. This can also extend to activities like stock counting, where there is a much wider margin for human error than through automation. You may also find that handling accidents resulting in damaged products are reduced when using AMR.

They offer a good return on investment

While there is an initial upfront cost to acquire and set up AMR units, your investment will soon be returned as a result of better productivity and stock fulfilment levels, which feed into profits and customer satisfaction. As AMRs are designed to adapt to your existing warehouse environment, you will not need to cover huge overheads carrying out an overhaul of your space, either.

Are AMRs safe to use?

One of the biggest questions you might find yourself asking is whether these AMRs are safe enough to introduce into a dynamic warehouse environment — and the answer is, yes!

Modern AMR units are typically equipped with 360⁰ laser scanning systems that will react to an obstruction or accident incredibly quickly, safely stopping or rerouting the unit. So, if someone trips or stops unexpectantly, the robot will react decisively. The majority of AMRs are also programmed to move no faster than walking speed, so there won’t be any fast-moving hazards for workers to avoid.

Hopefully, this article has introduced you to AMR and some of the benefits they can offer your warehouse operation, including better productivity, health and safety, and customer satisfaction.