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I went to a sushi restaurant this weekend with my wife and three-year-old son. Of course, dining with a toddler could go either way, so we planned our destination tactically: This restaurant buzzed with robotic servers that would surely capture the imagination of a curious mind. Sure enough, by the end of the dinner, we were all quite fascinated by real-life operational robots zipping from table to table (going so far as to ask why some of our dishes arrived by the ‘human’ server instead of BellaBot).
Granted, the logistics of a restaurant are very different from a warehouse. But for many, these robotic encounters provide a first insight into the world of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). And while it verged on kitschy, drawing giggles and gawks because of the digital faces on the screen or a missed ‘pick’, operating at 100% with 50% staff in the middle of a labor crisis is enough to grab the attention of anyone feeling the pinch.
While the public is newly fascinated by the world of AMRs, Fetch Robotics has been evangelizing warehouse robotics for nearly a decade. Understanding that maturing landscape and the ideal conditions for AMRs were the topics of conversation on my recent podcast episode, What Impact Are Warehouse Robotics Having on the 3PL and Distribution Industries?in in which Todd Boone, director of product management at Fetch Robotics, identifies the opportunities ahead and the hurdles to anticipate in automating both greenfield and brownfield warehouses, providing practical advice for those designing a one to five year warehouse automation roadmap.
“Automation, in many respects, is a response to the many things going on in the market right now,” explains Todd. Indeed, the warehousing crunch spans challenges around capacity, labor and efficiency, all of which are contributing to the accelerated interest in warehouse robotics.
The one billion square feet of warehouses in California’s Inland Empire is cracking at the seams. The Port of Los Angeles and Port of Long Beach recently saw a 0.7% vacancy rate citing how 3PLs, logistics and e-commerce tenants have a greater demand for space.
This is really a reflection of the changing role of distributors and 3PLs. As reported by Deloitte, e-commerce and direct-to-consumer focused 3PLs have space requirements beyond those of traditional warehouses to be able to manage returns, seasonality and processing of orders that are comprised of ‘eaches’ rather than pallets.
“In many cities, there isn’t a lot of extra square footage available, so to build is becoming more and more challenging because warehousing square footage is at an absolute premium,” explains Todd. “The major design consideration is how do you best leverage the investment you already have in your facility. Can we reutilize the facility and the layout within that facility as much as possible, and bring in automation to make people’s lives easier?”
With finite space, the focus turns to maximizing capacity: “You need to figure out your density of robots and workers in one location, otherwise you’re not going to get the facility gains that you need,” adds Todd.
Using robots to shore up operations is a direct corollary of the longtail labor shortages plaguing industries across the board. It’s a reasoned approach that the big players are pursuing on a large scale.
Walmart, for example, is rolling out its second automated consolidation center in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. It’s a major project that is slated to employ 1,000 people; but Walmart is not impervious to labor woes, so it’s with good reason that the facility’s use of robotics and automation “can enable three times more volume to flow throughout the center,” which then feeds its 42 regional distribution centers also outfitted with robotics.
With labor, it’s a bit of a ‘chicken or egg’ situation: “A lot of people looked at automation as a threat to the jobs of whatever industry they were in, but now more and more customers are saying, ‘I don’t have enough people and the people I have I can’t keep’ [and meanwhile] the e-commerce world is doing nothing but accelerating,” warns Todd.
As Todd recounts, the fabric of efficiency is stitched with the threads of labor and capacity: “[Management] needed a mechanism to increase their capacity within this labor-constrained market within this realm of two- to three-hour turnaround expectations.”
When a 20-25% efficiency gain using traditional warehouse technologies is “not enough” to deliver a competitive edge, Todd explains that the conversation usually turns to warehouse robotics. When everything else is running at peak performance, the emerging world of robotics becomes a new lever to eke out better KPIs.
Enter the fast-growing automation scene with pioneers and start-ups alike clamoring for mindshare. It is impressive to witness the speed and intelligence with which warehouse robotics are being developed in California, Colorado and of course, Boston Massachusetts, the de facto capital of automation where hundreds (yes, hundreds) of robotics companies are calling home, pushing the envelope and inspiring new ideas; indeed, whether from Boston or Bucharest, innovators are all working to solve for the efficiency equation.
Warehouse automation is evolving at breakneck speeds, and it’s daunting to think about the kinds of robotics that are rolling into mainstream distribution environments. We had a great conversation with Todd, unpacking what is on the horizon in the warehouse robotics space, and extracted some great insights around what to consider when looking at automated mobile robots.
So as robots increasingly roam the open roads, it is incumbent on supply chain and logistics leaders to be mindful of the evolving landscape of warehouse robotics, the value they deliver and how to take advantage of the most suitable use cases.
With an open mind and forward-thinking strategy, we may even grow to love our robotic colleagues ... Mind you, my three-year-old was the only one of us who hugged and thanked the BellaBot on the way out of the restaurant.
“Robots are here not to take your job, but to make your job easier.”