Types and Applications of Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)
The past few decades have brought monumental changes to the world of order fulfillment and material handling. From rising labor costs to a shrinking pool of qualified workers to increased competition from ecommerce giants—today’s order fulfillment operations have a lot of challenges to contend with.
Embracing promising new technologies has always been an important piece of the puzzle for warehouses and distribution centers, who must regularly modernize and adapt if they are to remain competitive and profitable in this new reality. But with available technologies expanding as rapidly as they currently are, it can be difficult to know exactly which automation solutions make the most sense for your needs.
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The field of warehouse robotics, especially, has a lot to offer when it comes to automation technology that can be used to increase productivity and efficiency. Though certain types of warehouse robots—such as AGVs, AS/RS, and others—have already been around for years, many warehouse managers are finding themselves wondering about a new entrant to the marketplace: Autonomous Mobile Robots, also known as AMRs.
What are Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)?
Broadly speaking, an autonomous mobile robot (AMR) is any robot that can understand and move through its environment without being overseen directly by an operator. Typically, this is achieved through an array of sophisticated onboard sensors, computers, and maps, which allow AMRs to understand and interpret their environment in order to function as a form of asynchronous transportation.
In a warehouse setting, these sophisticated technologies partner with the warehouse execution software (WES) in order to grant AMRs increased flexibility to create their own routes between locations within a warehouse or facility, identifying and avoiding obstacles and rerouting themselves when necessary. The end result is a robot that is much better able to deal with the dynamic environment offered by most order fulfillment operations.
Note: Though similar in many ways to automated guided vehicles (AGVs), AMRs differ in a number of important ways. The greatest of these differences is inflexibility: AGVs must follow much more rigid, preset routes than AMRs.
AMRs work, largely, by helping to make an operation more efficient and productive. This is typically achieved by performing highly repetitive and/or redundant tasks in order to free up laborers to perform other tasks that offer greater value to the operation.
Types of Autonomous Mobile Robots
Although they are still a relatively young technology, AMRs have already branched off into a number of distinct varieties, each of which is better suited to perform a different type of action.
Because these technologies are still new, we do not yet have a standardized set of names or labels for them—the names that we do have tend to be branded or trademarked and will vary depending on the manufacturer that you purchase your machine through.
For this reason, when discussions about AMRs take place, they tend to focus on the application that the technology is meant to perform. Typically, these functions will revolve around:
- Moving product within a facility
- Assisting pickers
Below, we discuss the different types of AMRs available to perform each of these actions, in order to help you better understand which systems might be able to help your operation meet its goals.
AMRs to Transport Product
Transporting product from one place to another within a facility is, typically, a low-skill task. As such, it is often one of the first tasks to be automated when an operation decides that automation is in the cards. Automating product transportation means that workers can be placed elsewhere in the facility in order to perform other, more valuable tasks.
The main varieties of AMRs used to transport product within a facility include:
Freight and Pallet Transport AMRs
These AMRs are built to transport larger loads such as cases and pallets. Different models will operate in different ways. Some will tow or tug a load, but this will require that the load is placed on wheels. Others will sit directly beneath a load and lift it off the ground; in this case, the AMR itself acts as the wheels. Regardless of the variety, the load that the AMR can handle will depend on the specifics of the model. In many ways, AMRs functioning in this way are similar to AGVs, though AGVs tend to be able to move larger loads.
Conveyor Deck AMRs
Also called rollertops, these AMRs are topped by a set of rollers which allows them to interact with conveyors in various ways—for example, by transferring loads to and from the conveyor. These AMRs can be used for conveyor-to-conveyor transportation, bridging gaps and extending existing conveyance without needing to lay new track. In addition to working with conveyors, Conveyor Deck AMRs can also typically interface with automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) as well as some other types of automation. These machines generally cannot, though, pick up product directly off of the floor.
AMRs to Assist Picking
Picking order is one of the costliest tasks performed by laborers within an operation—not because it requires a high level of training or skill, but because it is extremely time-consuming. Physically walking from location to location within a facility can account for more than 50% of the time associated with picking, driving up labor costs that could be better spent elsewhere. Using autonomous mobile robots to help make a picking operation more efficient can keep labor costs in check.
The main varieties of AMRs used to compliment pick operations include:
These robots are used to supplement a pick-to-cart strategy, wherein pickers pick order directly to a cart. Specifically, the robots work by transporting carts from one location within a facility to another: Moving carts between zones, for example, or taking a cart full of orders to be packed, processed, and shipped. Automating this transportation can improve total order cycle time by allowing pickers to stay in their zone, reducing travel time and increasing efficiency.
These robots work alongside laborers in order to make the pick process more efficient. Typically, these AMRs work as a guide, bringing pickers to the location of a product that needs to be picked into an order. Once the machine arrives at the correct location, the picker will be allowed to pick the order before the machine moves to the next location. This type of robot is often paired with the warehouse execution software and a pick-to-light or pick-to-voice system in order to increase productivity further compare to paper picking. The exact shape and capacity of these robots will vary by model and/or supplier.
The Bottom Line
Whether or not autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) or another type of automation makes sense for your order fulfillment operation will depend largely on the specifics of your business. A skilled and trusted systems integrator can help you to determine the best path forward for your business.