Autonomous Mobile Robots: The Latest Applications and Use Cases from Leading Suppliers and Users

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are changing the automation landscape. AMRs zip around vast stacks of products, ferrying the latest purchases for shipment across the world. They are replacing forklifts, pulling 1,000-kg payloads around a factory. Robots are stitching together production processes by moving products from one conveyer belt to another. They’ll even clean the floors.

On June 17, as part of a series of executive roundtables hosted by the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), six industry leaders discussed how these technologies can be applied in your business and explored potential use-cases for mobile robots. The panel was moderated by Robert Huschka, the director of education strategies at A3.

The participants:

Nearly 1,000 people registered for the webinar, which was sponsored by AutoGuide Mobile Robots, Locus Robotics, MiR, OTTO Motors, and Waypoint Robotics.

Each company had the opportunity to present a demonstration of its AMR technology.

WATCH THE REPLAY: Sign up here to watch the entire discussion and see each companies demostrations.

Here’s an edited summary of some of the key topics that were discussed:

What are some of the advantages at the top level of AMR over traditional automation?

Rob Sullivan: Well, looking at AMR vs. conveyor networks or some traditional line guided vehicles, it offers flexibility, scalability, safety, and much faster to deploy. Also, when moving material around in the past, you had fixed conveyor systems or even fixed-line guided vehicle systems. Today with AMRs, you can actually expand your system throughout your factory without having to do any infrastructure changes.

What are some of the applications that are best suited to mobile robots and how is that expanding?

Matt Rendall: Being that AMRs are early in the adoption curve, there’s still lots of ground to be covered to discover the best application. The way that I coach our customers is to find for the sweet-spot applications for AMRs to start by looking at delivery routes inside of a warehouse or manufacturing operation where traditional material handling automation has not yet penetrated. So if you see conveyor networks or ATVs or rail-guided systems, traditional automation hasn’t figured out a way to serve that use case. We’re more interested in areas that have been too complex, too rapidly changing, too dynamic for traditional automation to succeed. The benefits of AMR, we believe, is that you’re getting closer to human capable-automation -- automation that can adapt to the realities of complex manufacturing and warehousing environments.

How have perceptions changed during this COVID-19 era?

Jason Walker:  Certainly, the boom in e-commerce is significant. And there’s disinfecting applications. AMRs in both of those cases are be able to automate things that are untenable for a person to do or are not economical. The increased lack of available workers, combined with the increased demand for e-commerce and the increased demand for safe work environments, that’s all converged, to really shine a bright light on the value of mobile robots.

Aaron Prather: It’s definitely reinforced the importance of [AMR] technology in our company and even across the entire logistics industry. AMRs are getting ready for a Golden Age as we come out of the COVID pandemic. For a company like FedEx, we have so many use cases where AMRs could be applied. It’s just going to be an amazing couple of years.

Karen Leavitt: It’s not just the golden age of robotics. It’s really the golden age of e-commerce, which is the underlying force that’s driving the need for robotics. It’s not even demand at this point. It’s switched from being a demand to being a need. And COVID has been a catalyst for that. For the last decade, there’s been an increasing labor shortage in the space, and the volume has been increasing, putting pressure on warehouse operators, and the COVID-19 crisis has really layered on a massive propellant. The business has shifted up into the warehouse. There’s now tremendous demand to get orders out of the warehouse. Many of our customers are seeing the equivalent of Black Friday every day ... and you can’t get that job done if you don’t have automation that’s essentially turning your workers into superhumans.

How are AMRs helping big customers like FedEx in ways that traditional automation can’t? What challenges have AMRs solved?

Ed Mullen:  It’s important to really start with educating the end-user on what the system can do and cannot do. How does LIDAR work? And how does route planning work? And I think once we get through the education part of things,  and customers -- along with integrators and distributors in the supply chain -- understand how to apply it and what its strengths and weaknesses are, and the use cases become very clear.

Jason Walker: One of the things we’ve done is try to build robots that are extremely capable, versatile adaptable, and intuitive. Trying to teach shipping and receiving clerk what LIDAR is and how it works for us as a non-starter. So we try to make the robots that work intuitively. At Waypoint, we think there’s a spectrum of autonomy, and we operate at one where the robots are 100% completely independent in terms of computation, navigation, processing power, and network. Everything is onboard the robots. And that makes it really easy to deploy.

How do you help a customer determine where AMRs can assist their operation?

Matt Rendall: We start by trying to understand what the goals are. And not all delivery routes are created equal. A good manual process does not make for a good automated process. And so we try to avoid the trap of creating or automating a bad process. We encourage our customers to come to us with the underlying business reason to automate the objectives. We partner with our customers -- trying to understand, full dock-to-dock material flow with a picture of how material moves in the entire value chain in their operations – and answer their questions on which components of this value chain are best suited for AMRs. And once we have that type of conversation, we can start to answer ROI questions, deployment phasing, long-term service and support. But it really starts by asking the question why.

How do you get from initial conversation to having robots on industry floor?

Ed Mullen:  Education. It’s getting a customer understand what the application is -- and how it’s going to be applied in the surroundings. So we go through a few months of putting a robot in and developing the solution. How is the robot going to interface to the surrounding network environment environments, whether it’s the enterprise system, or manual-calling. And then we go through a deployment stage which determines how many robots are going to be needed for that particular application. What is a fleet control look like? So, that’s anywhere between a one or two full months of deployment to eight or 10 months depending on on how knowledgeable the customer is.

What’s the biggest limitation of AMR at the moment?

Aaron Prather: The pain point is that -- in some use cases -- the technology’s not there fully yet. Sometimes, you do have to adjust some parts of the operation for the AMR to actually operate. I think one of the biggest complaints we still get from some of our team members is they don’t want to babysit the AMR. The AMR is supposed to be there to help. If the robot is doing a pick wrong, you could get situations where your team members are not accepting AMR. They don’t like the AMR because it’s actually increasing work for them.

How do you begin to answer customers about ROI?

Karen Leavitt:  I always tell people, robots are cool -- but cool doesn’t pay the bills. If you’re not seeing a demonstrable measurable value proposition from this, it’s just not the right solution for you. We go through a process … in which is to assess your facility and determine whether you’re fit at all. Because if you’re not, we want to know right away, so we’ll walk away before you push us away. We’ve got better ways to use our time than to waste your time. Forrester did a study about a year and a half ago for Locus Robotics and went through all the possible costs. The hard costs in terms of labor salaries, benefits, and so forth as well as disaster costs. They determined an average customer gets about 129% ROI in less than six months.

There’re several ways to look at ROI? How do you advise your clients to get a full picture?

Matt Rendall: Typically, in your ROI case, you can divide it into hard benefits and soft benefits. At the end of the day, the decision to proceed forward, at least from a financial perspective, will rely on one or two measures: How much cost have I removed out. How much throughput have I increased?  But you need to look at all of the benefits underneath a flexible intelligent infrastructure -- and how this AMR solution can grow and adapt with your business over time. We try to encourage our customers to look at a more broad spectrum of benefits, hard and soft. And in today’s environment, when we’re trying to wrap our head around how does COVID -- the downstream impacts of supply chain resiliency, social distancing in the workplace, and absenteeism at work -- all fold into an ROI case. Also, you don’t have an infinite supply of good people. One of the biggest challenges is how do you make the people you have superhuman? You need to amplify them through the use of autonomous mobile robots and figuring out how to get that into the ROI case.

If I have to design a manufacturing space for AMRs and I have a clean slate, what should I consider?

Rob Sullivan: We’re not given a clean slate very often -- but I would look at the workflows and understand how you want your flow to work within the factory or distribution center. Then design your system -- looking at AMRs, like ours, and working with a team like ours, our application engineers, to get the most efficient use out of that space if possible. Right now, we’re usually going into existing warehouses, or manufacturing plants, and putting in systems. Although, there are a couple applications going right now where we’re able to do the industrial engineering with the company, and that’s great, where you can do that upfront. But, you need to first understand what you want to do what your application is, and then devise a plan in a system that will meet those needs.

How much training is needed for workers to use AMRs?

Ed Mullen: It’s more training on how to understand the capabilities of it, not using it. If you understand what it can do and you apply it in the right way, and it’s the right use case, it’s a success. I think we’re all on the same page with developing interfaces that are extremely easy to use, and I think as the future goes on with AMRs, every one of us as manufacturers will be focused on developing an interface that’s really intuitive. Just because it’s an AMR and it can dodge obstacles and navigate around people or objects doesn’t mean it’s a great fit for every application. So, for us, I think it’s more educating the way the technology works, the limitations for the technology, and the testing use cases for the technology.

How will robots from different manufacturers work alongside each other? How should the industry face that challenge and do there need to be standards related to interoperability?

Aaron Prather: Interoperability is definitely something coming to the forefront in the coming years. Because we starting to see where we have multiple robots operating in the same areas. So the question becomes: How are these robots going to communicate with each other in a safe manner so that they can keep doing the task at hand? And I think there’s going to be numerous solutions available out there. Interoperability is going to become a huge issue, especially as you just have more and more robots, doing different use cases, all at the same facility.

Jason Walker: We've always known that interoperability was going to be critical. So we built our robots with that expectation from day one. Included in that is batteries and charging, so we're really proud of our wireless charging system that's safe with zero maintenance. It's robust. It's really tolerant to misalignment if somebody bumps the robot. While I like being the only robot company right now in the industrial space that has wireless charging, we're much more interested in building a standard So that when there are multiple robots in a facility, they can share charging stations. So if we can work together to drive up the scale, the better it will be for all of us.

How can AMRs help companies scale up and down based on surges in demand?

Karen Leavitt: Customers are already scaling up and scaling down their workforce to meet seasonal peaks and valleys. They call it temporary labor. And what we’re doing is we’re providing automated labor -- robotics labor -- to complement the human labor. You know when companies bring in temporary humans, they’re going to equip them with devices and tools.. Robots work the same way in terms of their ability to scale. Any new robot that’s introduced to the facility has to understand that environment as well as all the other robots do. So it’s critical that all the robots do a kind of a mind meld. And when a new robot is introduced into the environment, it takes about two minutes for that robot to join the workforce. Most of that time is really just the time spent unboxing it, and literally turning it on. But then it latches on to the robots’ server and network, and it goes about its path. It’s essentially a unit of productivity that you’re introducing into the equation.

What’s next for AMRs? What are you excited about?

Rob Sullivan: What gets me really going is looking at how we could integrate the WMS (Warehouse Management System) into this -- and also understanding the power of integrating these mobile robotic fleets together. We will build our architecture to be the traffic cop of mobile robot systems, where the systems will be key to really determine, for instance, what robot is going before what other robot. What has the priority of those robots. It’s will allow us to build these factories, these distribution centers, and e-commerce centers to maximize the reliability and the amount of throughput. That’s what gets me jazzed up every day.

WATCH THE REPLAY: Sign up here to watch the entire discussion and see each companies demostrations.