Pros and Cons of Autonomous Mobile Robots in the Warehouse
When it comes to warehouse automation, businesses of all kinds are trying to understand how embracing different technologies might help to make their order fulfillment operation more productive, efficient, and profitable. One such technology currently in the spotlight is autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).
In a warehouse or order fulfillment setting, the term autonomous mobile robots refers to any robot that can interpret and move through its environment without being directly overseen by a human operator. By utilizing a sophisticated bundle of onboard sensors, cameras, and maps which integrate with warehouse execution software, AMRs can be used to perform a number of functions, from transporting materials and goods to facilitating an existing pick strategy.
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But are AMRs the right technology for your operation? The truth is, while autonomous mobile robots can bring a number of powerful benefits to a facility, they are not a good fit for all industries or operations. Below, we discuss some of the major benefits and drawbacks of implementing AMRs so that you can determine whether or not they make sense for your business.
Advantages of AMRs
1. Increased Flexibility
Because AMRs rely largely on onboard sensors and cameras to operate—and not wires or magnetic tape like AGVs and AGCs—AMRs exemplify flexible, agile automation. Instead of following hard-set paths, AMRs are able to dynamically create their own efficient pathways from Point A to Point B within a facility, helping them to avoid obstacles.
This flexibility also means that AMRs can be switched to perform new tasks with relative ease, compared to other automation technologies which typically require more time and effort to reprogram.
2. Increased Safety
AMRs are packed to the gills with sensors and cameras. These allow the AMR to interpret and understand its environment, which allows it to effectively travel within a facility without colliding with obstacles such as product, infrastructure, or people.
By contrast, equipment run by human operators, such as forklifts, do not have as many built-in safety mechanisms and ultimately rely on human input. Whereas a human operator always has the potential to become distracted or fatigued, and therefore cause an accident, these are not concerns when using AMRs. Employing AMRs for easily-repeatable tasks, therefore, allows operations to remove the potential for human error and drastically improve the overall safety of a facility.
3. Quick Implementation
AMRs can realistically be deployed within an operation in four to six weeks, depending on the specifics of an operation. (Especially important here are the picking software and warehouse execution software that the units will need to integrate with.)
Even on the high end of the spectrum, this is a remarkably small amount of time—especially when compared against other technologies. As a point of reference, a goods-to-person (G2P) system could take up to a year to fully implement.
4. Ability to Scale
Because AMRs are relatively easy to implement within a facility, it is possible to follow a modular deployment system—starting with a few units and adding more as necessary as your operation grows and your needs change.
This allows you to avoid an incredibly high initial investment because instead of purchasing a large amount of AMRs all at once, you are able to start with one or two and add to your fleet over time. This modular deployment frees up capital that you can use to pursue other initiatives while you analyze the impact of AMRs on your business and determine next steps.
5. Easy to Move Between Facilities
Some operations may be hesitant to pursue automation options because they know that a move to a new facility is in the cards for the near future. This thinking makes perfect sense: Why implement a new system when it will only need to be dismantled in the next two years when the new facility is built?
In situations such as this, AMRs can be used to bridge the gap during the interim. Because AMRs are relatively easy to deploy, they can also be moved between facilities with relative ease, enabling automation even in the short term. In addition to operations expecting a near-term move, this can also be a boon for companies setting up a temporary holiday operation.
Disadvantages of AMRs
1. AMRs Work Best With a High Amount of SKUs
In order to justify the cost of implementing an AMR system, such an implementation must make an operation more efficient. The primary way that AMRs do this is by reducing travel time: The less time a worker spends traveling, the more time they are spending in their zone picking and fulfilling orders.
One of the primary drivers of travel time is the number of SKUs that an operation has on hand. Generally speaking, the more SKUs that are stocked, the more travel time will be required to fill an order. In order for an AMR to truly have an impact on travel time, a facility must have a certain bare minimum of SKUs; otherwise, travel time is not likely to be reduced enough to justify the cost of the system.
This means that autonomous mobile robots may be a better fit for mid- to large-sized operations with a substantial number of SKUs, and less logical for operations with a smaller number of SKUs.
2. Limitations on Load Size
Depending on the type of product that your operation handles, an AMR system may not be a good fit for you. Though load capacity will vary by model and provider, AMRs are not as heavy-duty as AGVs and some other forms of automation, which may limit the applications of AMRs within your facility. For operations that handle extremely heavy materials or product, AGVs or AS/RS may be a better fit.
Determining Your Path Forward
AMRs can be an incredibly powerful addition to your warehouse or order fulfillment operation, allowing you to increase efficiency, productivity, and profitability with relatively low investment costs. That being said, the technology isn’t for everyone.
In addition to weighing the pros and cons of AMRs yourself, a trusted systems integrator can help you determine whether AMRs would complement your operation, or if you should consider alternative technologies.