Mike Futch is president, CEO, and one of the founders of Tompkins Robotics. He was instrumental in bringing the company’s robotic sortation systems to the market and continues to drives much of the new application development, product conceptualization, and integration with partners. Futch also had a successful career in the U.S. Air Force and as a leader at several consulting firms. He recently spoke with David Maloney, DC Velocity’s group editorial director.
Q: WHAT IS THE CURRENT STATE OF THE ROBOTICS INDUSTRY?
A: The robotics industry is strong and continues to grow at a fast pace. The primary driver for this is growth in work-content and the shortage of labor, coupled with rapidly rising salaries. The growth in work-content is due to supply chains processing more and more individual items. As the handling of items increases and there is less case handling, the work-content goes up.
Combining that with the availability, retention, and cost of labor creates a serious shortfall for firms to meet demand. Robot solutions allow for an increase in efficiency, accuracy, and overall productivity. Robotics also allow a firm to get more work done, add capacity, and create better work environments with the same staff. The ability to integrate and develop new robotic solutions will continue and will only further accelerate adoption of robotic technologies.
Q: WHAT IS THE TIPPING POINT WHERE DISTRIBUTORS REALIZE THEY NEED TO MOVE FROM MANUAL TO AUTOMATED SYSTEMS?
A: Labor and capacity concerns have forced companies to consider automated alternatives. With the growing adoption of robotic technology, there are also proven quantifiable metrics that companies can examine to determine the business case for adopting robotic solutions. Total cost of ownership, reduction of human error and associated savings, space constraints, leveraging existing facilities, time-to-value, and return on investment (ROI) are all key performance indicators that have demonstrated improvements with robotic implementation.
In addition, the changes for the workforce are important. Removing repetitive and difficult job tasks from workers and elevating them to manage robotic fleets creates value for that workforce and the employer. Another driver for investment in automation is customer expectations and service-level demands, such as 100% accuracy, and quality and speed of delivery. As more robotic solutions are deployed, these measurable objectives will only be more prevalent for decision-makers.
Q: WHAT TYPES OF ROBOTICS APPLICATIONS ARE ATTRACTING THE MOST INTEREST FROM DISTRIBUTORS?
A: With the tremendous rise in e-commerce and direct-to-consumer purchasing habits, goods-to-person picking (GTP) and autonomous mobile robot (AMR) unit sortation have become a key focus for fulfillment and distribution centers. The deployment of automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) is a major trend and can help companies cope with space and labor constraints.
Sortation systems that allow large batch picks with the sortation devices getting the items to the right order represent another major trend, and AMRs are filling that need. A new trend that is becoming prevalent is combining these solutions into a more effective and end-to-end solution for fulfillment.
Q: IN WHAT WAYS DO ROBOTICS SYSTEMS HELP COMPANIES SCALE THEIR TRANSITIONS TO AUTOMATION?
A: The most advantageous robotic solutions provide flexibility for the facility’s operations. Solutions that allow robots to be added for peak times or as a company’s operations grow give a company the ability to purchase what it needs today without sacrificing the ability to adapt for future growth. The ability to integrate robotic systems as operational needs change, implement solutions with a strong ROI, and create a better work environment for workers is necessary in today’s climate.
An example would be to add one type of system today, say, the Tompkins Robotics tSort AMR sortation system. For a company new to automation, this “point of entry” would allow it to introduce robotic technology on a limited budget, within a small space, and with minimal technical resources, training, or management requirements. Then after a few months, it could add robotic induction or a GTP solution to bring the items to sortation that would further enhance productivity and ROI. This allows the company to demonstrate efficiency and introduce robotic technology without wholesale changes or a large upfront capital investment.
Q: ARE THERE PRACTICAL LIMITS TO THE AMOUNT OF AUTOMATION CUSTOMERS SHOULD HAVE IN THEIR FACILITIES AND WHAT DETERMINES THAT?
A: The only real limits to automation are set by company leadership and not being visionary. Some leaders are fearful of change, apprehensive of new technology, or perceive robotics as a risk. However, others view robotics in their supply chain as having the potential to increase margins through lower fulfillment costs and provide strategic advantage over market competition.
The automation market has matured, and robust solutions are available. For example, robotic AS/RS systems are in approximately 1,000 sites, and the number of AMR sortation robots deployed exceeds 20,000. There are CapEx, lease, and OpEx (robots-as-a-service or RaaS) options available in the market. The perception that automation is a long journey and creates inflexibility in the supply chain is a misconception. Defining the range of the requirements anticipated for your company, researching the solutions to find the right one, and verifying that firm can deliver will allow you to select a supplier that will make the project a success. Provided you find the right fit, there should be very few limits on the ability to automate.
Q: WHAT KINDS OF ROBOTICS DESIGNS WILL WE SEE BY 2030?
A: There will be a continued push toward flexible, scalable, compatible, and modular solutions. Gone are the days of large, expensive fixed solutions that must be built for growth projections five and 10 years out. The market changes, new channels come about, dynamic and fluid things occur. We only have to look at the past 2.5 years to see dramatic evidence of this. Operators require the ability to change as market events and their customers’ needs and buying habits change.
Tompkins Robotics has always challenged our entire company, led by our product development and software teams, to provide solutions that can be moved to new facilities, expand with our customers’ needs, maintain an open API [application programming interface] software for integration with partners’ or existing customers’ systems, and develop new products and services. There will also be more of a push to move from manual and traditional automation to the world of robotic automation. The future is a fleet of robots doing the same work as humans or the fixed, inflexible systems of the past. It is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when. And now is when the change is gaining momentum. This is the future.