A panel discussion at the ARC Industry Forum in Orlando, Florida explored the use of autonomous mobile robots (AMR) and drones in industry. Here, in Part 1 of this two-part ARC Insight, we’ll cover AMRs; Part 2 will focus on drones. These topics have created a lot of buzz in industry circles. The interactive and engaging panel discussion explored the applications, trends, and business justification for deploying these technologies.
The panelists for the AMR discussion were Harry Chase, Director Advanced Materials GE Appliances, a Haier Company; and Andreas Boedenauer, President North America, AGILOX. Steve Banker, Vice President, Supply Chain Management at ARC Advisory Group moderated the discussion.
After brief introductions, the panelists spoke about their respective companies and journeys. There have been challenges and setbacks, but these have been offset by improved efficiency and productivity. Further, they substantiated the efficacy of deployments with real-life examples and responded to audience queries on various issues ranging from ROI and labor to robotics-as-a-service and “swarming” technology.
The Autonomous Mobile Robot Journey
Speaking about automating the material flow from the dock to the line side, Mr. Chase said that after testing different providers, GE Appliances selected AGILOX as one of its main suppliers. Initially, the company was just moving some large parts from the back of the warehouse to the assembly line. “This was a kind of learning phase to see what we could and couldn’t do with mobile robots,” he said. One impetus for the AMR pilot was that the company wanted flexibility at its manufacturing sites to be able to re-path and remap without having to make too many infrastructural changes. Previous to the AGILOX pilot, GE Appliances had implemented a different supplier’s AMRs. But, as we learned, while AMRs are more intelligent than AGVs (automated guided vehicles), the previous suppliers’ AMRs had fixed paths and couldn’t dodge obstacles. Mr. Chase explained that AGILOX employs a “swarming” technology that enables cloud-based robot-to-robot communication. Thus, if one bot encounters an obstruction on a travel path, that discovery can be used to update the facility map all the robots use to navigate throughout the facility.
Before deploying robots a number of tests needed to be done. There were also integration issues. Traditionally, a lot of things were done manually at the manufacturing sites, but now GE Appliances is developing a digital material replenishment system. As the software integration builds out, the company’s focus will be on triggering different types of replenishment signals. The pilot was successful. Over the last year and a half, 17 different units have been deployed; and this year’s goal is to exponentially increase that to 50 or 60 units.
Mr. Banker asked if the initial impetus to deploy AMRs was a labor issue or ROI related?
Mr. Chase cited three different factors that initially affected the company’s decision to deploy AMRs: safety, visibility, and lack of manpower. The company looks for a less than two-year ROI for capital investments. In its business case, the company compared the cost of the technology to the cost of hiring people to do the job. Other factors were also considered, such as facility damage by associates driving forklifts too quickly, which resulted in costly repairs of damaged walls and guard rails.
Moving on to the topic of scalability, the panelists agreed that they could start with small, low-cost pilots with AMRs and then scale up if the pilot was successful. In contrast, installing a warehouse management system (WMS) can be a nine-month, million-dollar project.
Mr. Banker commented that an e-commerce AMR supplier previously spoke about an “instant payback.” This is possible with robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) pricing, which priced the system based on the number of transactions done by the robots. And if a robotic transaction fee is less than the cost of having a human to do that task, the ROI is instantaneous. GE Appliances, however, chose to buy the robots outright rather than leasing them.
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Keywords: ARC Industry Forum, Panel Discussion, Autonomous Mobile Robots, AMR, Safety, ROI, ARC Advisory Group.