For companies still without an automation infrastructure in place – and if we're honest, that's likely the majority – it’s time to catch up. Robotics help meet supply chain demands and improve employee safety.
You Know Your Company Needs Robotics, but Don’t Know Where to Start. Here’s How.
Editorial from A.K. Schultz, CEO and Co-Founder | SVT Robotics
“It’s like Black Friday every day.”
This summer, I was talking with a senior manager at a large e-commerce company. He was explaining to me that every day was like the holiday peak due to the pandemic and other supply chain issues. He wasn’t alone. I’ve heard similar assessments throughout the past year and a half.
As we all know, the demand on supply chains increased dramatically with the massive shift to ordering online due to the pandemic. And as we’ve entered another peak season, these extraordinary changes in consumer behavior around the globe have left most companies unable to keep up. However, some companies have been able to adapt.
What’s been the difference maker?
In short, robotics. Companies who entered the pandemic with automation already in place were best positioned to adapt. Whether dealing with dramatic increases in demand, simply trying to keep their workforce safe and healthy, or both, companies with robotics already deployed have been able to deal with, or even thrive, during this crisis.
As we look to 2022, it’s unlikely the new status quo will revert to pre-COVID-normal. Trends we see in consumer purchasing habits are likely to continue.
For companies still without an automation infrastructure in place – and if we're honest, that's likely the majority – it’s time to catch up. Robotics help meet supply chain demands and improve employee safety. They can also streamline operations and create efficiencies that will meet future business needs. Essentially, robotics technology is critical to long-term company health.
But where to start? How does a company new to robotics adopt automation quickly and with less risk? Here’s a roadmap.
Begin with core team infrastructure.
In the past, I've seen failed robot pilot projects that could have been wildly successful, all because they didn’t start with the right team or buy in internally. You can avoid this by filling some critical strategic gaps.
Buy in from the top. Bottom line: you'll need buy-in from top-level company management. Without it, you're doomed. You need at least one influential executive who has clout, so their blessing means people know this initiative matters; it's from the top. As roadblocks arise – and they will – executive leadership will be vital in knocking them down.
Engineering. IT. Operations. You'll need active support from all or at least most of these stakeholders before you start, and at least no vetos that could hamper your efforts.
The right team. Having the right team in place is critical for success. Ideally, they're your hard-chargers, up and coming talent with something to prove. And (see above)—this is crucial—they are integrated with engineering, IT, and operations. The team lead must be bold and effective – someone with credibility in the organization and (see above again) with an executive sponsor.
Quick tip: a small team that’s 100% allocated with a complete commitment is better than a larger team all 50% allocated with divided attention. You may have heard the "two-pizza rule"—if you can't feed the team with two pizzas, it's too big.
Clearly defined success criteria. First, decouple what you're piloting from other influences. For example, a mobile robot pilot might be successful, but a peripheral problem could make the robot "look bad." More times than not that will kill the pilot.
Do this through testing methods that begins at the motor level and work up to enterprise integration. The advantage of bottom-up testing is you'll know whether any problems that arise are in the hardware, software, or operation.
Use case: An automation pilot failed because the picking robot did not make its promised rate. However, it was later discovered that the robot was always being either starved of or flooded with product. The pilot was considered a loss, but it could’ve been successful if the team at the time had recognized the upstream problem rather than blaming the robot.
It’s all technical from here.
Start with math. Before you run out and buy some robots, you must understand the material flow, transactional volume of your current process, and how much it costs. Rely on the data to inform your decisions. These numbers will guide robot companies use to give you the right capacity and help you calculate ROI. Skipping this step will lead you to either underbuy or overbuy capacity. Or you'll be just right, but you won't make ROI. Either way, it would be a failure.
Don’t fixate on one technology. There is no perfect technology for your entire business. The best solution is to pilot and test as many technologies as you can before scaling up.
In days past, companies would build the largest automation system possible, all purchased from one vendor, and stive to optimize it. Today, with modularity and point solutions, you're able to gain clarity on what you're trying to execute and assess multiple technologies against that objective, which is much more budget friendly. Many systems are available in a robotics-as-a-service model, so the entry cost is even lower. That test-then-scale approach also allows more flexibility, because your business needs will change while you're implementing robotics.
Test thoroughly. Trust me on this one. Take extra time. Ramp up slowly, and whatever you do, do not go live before Black Friday. That may sound obvious, but it happens all the time.
Do you need help? If so, get the right kind.
You’ve got several options when it comes to finding the expertise needed to integrate and deploy robotics solutions that meet your objectives.
Do It Yourself. If your company has a lot of technical skill, you can buy point solutions and assemble them. That requires self-integrating all the pieces, but you can make this a lot easier with a middleware platform that understands the intricacies of robotics and handles the communication with all parts in a consistent manner. In this case, data is normalized and timestamps synchronized, making it easier to mine the data. Standard middleware technologies that are on the business operations side do not typically have these capabilities, which is why SVT Robotics launched the SOFTBOT™ Platform – to provide a middle integration layer that enables rapid and simplified automation deployment.
Independent integrators. If your company is more risk-averse or not as technically savvy, one option is to hire an integrator who can help with system design and automation selection. These integrators are more agnostic, so they can use anyone's hardware. But they also have less experience with each technology out there, so the integration development tends to be one-off and often more challenging to support long term.
OEM integrators. Definitely pros and cons to going this route. The upside is these companies can supply everything — it's turnkey service, with black box software and one interface point for your IT. However, this black box software is typically challenging to integrate with outside technologies, it’s difficult to extract data from it, and they tend to have longer timelines. They may also drive you to use their technology rather than outside best-in-class point solutions.
Consulting companies can be a great alternative. Their job is to help you determine your needs and recommend what solutions to bring in, without having a dog in the hunt. They don’t sell you anything but their expertise.
What to automate first.
Start with clear and focused scope. It's better to automate one thing well and expand from there than to attempt a larger masterpiece all at once. The former can be done more quickly and with less risk and cost. Start small: pilot, test, learn, and then scale.
Here are some great places to start in your factor or warehouse.
Automate long transport runs. This task is relatively simple to automate and integrate. One hour of forklift driver time saved is just a valuable as an hour saved from an order picker, but the solution is much easier to implement. Automating transports enables you to build your team, get the infrastructure in place, and prove with relatively low complexity and cost that you can execute—before jumping into more challenging applications. Furthermore, many companies have made the deployment of these bots more user friendly and quick to install. Vecna Robotics, MiR, and Fetch Robotics, to name a few.
Automate repetitive tasks. Some compartmentalized applications are easy/quick wins. If you're just getting started, I don't recommend jumping into a goods-to-person system or robotic picking as your first attempt at robotics. Instead, automate one task, respectively, that has a very high transaction load and master it.
For example, Plus One Robotics has a robot to induct parcels onto a sorter. While it's not what you’d call “simple,” it's compartmentalized and done thousands of times an hour, enabling significant savings for repetitive, low-skill tasks. It also has a very easy-to-measure ROI and project definition.
Don’t do something that requires massive capital expenditure. For example, a great way to cut your teeth on automating the picking process is with solutions from 6 River Systems or Locus Robotics. They have an on-board WES, so your WMS needs very minimal changes. They also have zero racking or building changes, a definite plus that can save millions of dollars.
Bias towards robots that interact with humans. i.e., "cobots." These machines are designed to interact with humans, so they don't require special fencing and tend to be more user friendly than their cousins behind fencing.
Yes, the advantage of machinery behind fencing is it can operate at higher speeds and provide higher output. However, if there's an error, they generally require someone specially trained to recover. They also tend to be more technically complex, meaning greater risk of downtime, which can offset the performance gains. For instance, RightHand Robotics, who has an amazing robotic picking technology, uses cobots for this very reason, enabling customers to deploy a very technologically smart robot that’s easier to operate and maintain.
Plus, beginning with simple robotics allows your maintenance teams to transition into robots without needing to retrain your entire workforce — which can be especially difficult for distribution centers in lower-populated areas.
For example, Ready Robotics is a super simple, easy to deploy platform that most companies can learn to implement in under a week. It’s also a robot-as-service model.
So where does that leave us?
With the unpredictability of 2022, the time to act is now. Start with a small pilot project and master it before jumping into a much larger, more complex “masterpiece” system. If you execute on these steps first, you'll end up with an infrastructure of IT, engineering, maintenance, and core talent to address more complex challenges that will come later with greater capital outlay and commercial risk.
Getting started with new technologies can seem daunting, even for successful corporations, especially during a pandemic. However, companies with talent and commitment have shown it's possible with the right infrastructure in place. Robotic adoption can make an immediate impact on improving business output and employee safety. And there’s no time like the present to get started.
About A.K. Schultz
A.K. Schultz, CEO and Co-Founder of SVT Robotics, leads the overall company vision as well as product and go-to-market strategies. His work has primarily been in the Fortune 500 corporate sector leading the design and implementation of high-profile automation projects across multiple industries. To date, he has overseen the successful deployment of over half a billion dollars in automation. SVT Robotics is revolutionizing robotics in warehousing and manufacturing industries, with their SOFTBOT™ Platform, which enables companies to easily integrate and deploy automation in days and weeks instead of months and years.
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of RoboticsTomorrow
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