Turning Islands of Automation into Networks for Automation
| By: John Stikes, Director of Strategic Alliances, OTTO Motors
As automation went from dream to reality in the logistics and manufacturing sectors, operations professionals have spent the last three decades adding technology to automate individual processes.
What I call ‘islands of automation’ have certainly reduced dependence on labor, created higher quality and consistency, and improved worker safety. But too often, they have come at the expense of a facility’s overall orchestration.
In distribution centers and manufacturing plants, overall workflow efficiency is critical. Just imagine the efficiency of any fast food restaurant or even your local Starbucks. If your local McDonald’s had hamburgers in one location and french fries somewhere entirely different, you would be witnessing islands of automation at their worst. Islands of automation hold the entire process hostage, with the parts of the workflow having to continually cater to the speed and setup of the individual islands.
Said another way, these isolated automated processes dictate how the overall facility workflow functions. A facility that does not address this is leaving money on the table every hour of every day.
The last thirty years were defined by our ability to automate. The next thirty will be about orchestration.
From Automation to Orchestration
Over the years, it’s made complete sense to automate certain processes, whether it’s palletizing or an ordering process where product is moving from storage to a picking location and then to wrapping. These types of constituent workflows are repeatable and exist in one or a few fixed locations. Automating them with fixed solutions was important. But now we have the capability to connect these pockets in order to achieve a significantly better overall flow.
I spent fifteen years leading innovation, maintenance, and - most importantly - operations at global 3PLs and within some of the largest e-commerce and retail supply chains. In all that time, I was working to achieve better levels of workflow integration for my clients. Facilities are very complex, particularly the logistics facilities, and an orchestrated approach is the only way for a facility to achieve its true potential.
Modern Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) first entered the market in 2013. Different from the AGV predecessors in the same way as automobiles are different from trains, AMRs held the promise to connect islands of automation both physically and digitally, as well as to establish just-in-time delivery. I was first introduced to OTTO Motors as I undertook to connect my client’s islands of automation.
Unlike other AMRs, you don’t have to redesign the facility in order to incorporate OTTO’s technology. Additionally, most technology providers are first and foremost product companies. OTTO is process-first. Their team of industrial engineers fully analyzes the entire workflow process to determine how to best deploy AMRs to meet a company’s objectives. After years of working with OTTO as a customer, I knew I wanted to be a part of the team, and I’m now OTTO’s Director of Strategic Alliances.
Along with an experienced team of plant design engineers who analyze every aspect of a customer’s unique workflow to thoroughly integrate with existing islands of automation, OTTO uses a suite of customized equipment solutions. It has developed the broadest range of AMRs in the business, including the heaviest chassis vehicles.
We know it’s integral to have the right vehicle for the right task to ensure optimized overall workflow. There will be areas of the facility where only one robot can fit, where speeds can be higher at certain times or must be lower, where certain vehicles are needed to take materials or products to or from a process that’s already automated.
Thanks to our amazing partners around the world OTTO can address any customer configuration. OTTO AMRs can be configured as a lift table, a conveyor, or employ customized attachments designed specifically for a given task. This is wildly different from the rest of the industry. Our approach is all about customization; doing whatever we need to do to achieve maximum efficiency for a given customer.
In addition to OTTO’s experienced analysis team and customized hardware, the third pillar of the OTTO approach is robust software and machine learning algorithms. The system will continually optimize efficiency in a customer’s complex workflow. It will account for payload sizes and payload types, for example, the timing of various processes, or orchestration of vehicular and worker traffic. OTTO can easily be trained to decide which person or vehicle has the right of way, how long it should wait before taking another pathway in the facility, and what areas are off-limits.
Optimized Even in Variability
In retail distribution centers, seasonal variability creates volume surges. In manufacturing, there can also be not only volume variability but also process variability, with requirements for example to change pack sizes on a weekly or even daily basis. All of these facilities are automated to handle the base volume, but in times of variability, their fixed islands of automation don't have the flexibility to quickly scale up and back down. Temporary workers or even temporary robotic units are brought in, causing potential safety issues and introducing inefficiencies.
The best system is one in which a facility is inherently ready for variability. The system orchestrates the AMRs and other aspects of the workflow to handle higher volumes, changes to larger or smaller pack sizes, and to scale up and down as needed.
Creating the Future
While logistics and manufacturing facilities have certainly gained efficiencies by automating parts of their workflow, they’ve also created isolated islands that are holding back higher overall facility efficiency.
Optimizing and future-proofing a facility requires automation that can collect data at every stage of the workflow, learn and improve over time. This is where true transformation occurs.
The era of facilities implementing isolated point solutions is over. The facilities of the future are turning their islands of automation into a network of automation and seeing facility-scale transformation.