Panel participants (alphabetical by last name):
Josh Cloer, Sales Director, Mujin
Don Dong, Vice President of Sales, VisionNav Robotics
Lior Elazary, Co-founder & CEO, inVia Robotics
Terrence (TJ) Fanning, COO, SVT Robotics
Mike Kasperski, Senior Vice President, Automation Group Leader, enVista
Jim Lawton, Vice President and General Manager of Robotics Automation, Zebra Technologies
Scott Matlock, General Manager of L&A Division, Murata Machinery USA/Muratec
Stanislas Normand, Managing Director, Exotec
Sean O’Farrell, Vice President of Operations, Tompkins Robotics
Lotte Willems, Director of Product Management, Vanderlande
Q: What are the biggest factors influencing current automation decisions?
Jim Lawton – Zebra: There’s been a lot of change in the past few years, and there’s more to come. In fact, if there’s one thing to take away from what we’ve seen and experienced recently, it is that change is persistent, unpredictable, and far-reaching. The state of flux that every aspect of business faces—whether it is labor availability, material shortages, or unexpected disruption—has transformed the definition of operational excellence forever. Agility and flexibility are now the watchwords in the industry, and warehouse operators are looking for innovation that can help navigate that reality. Modern automation is key to building those abilities into their operations.
Don Dong – VisionNav: We have talked with many clients, and there are two things that they are most concerned about: The first is efficiency, which determines the feasibility of automation. The second is the need for more human resources. Many blue-collar positions can no longer attract young people, and recruitment is difficult; but the work is indispensable. We have encountered many projects and companies investing in robots because they cannot recruit candidates and hope to meet business needs through automation.
Lior Elazary – inVia Robotics: Key factors influencing automation decisions are ease of integration and time to deploy. The last few years have unleashed new technologies capable of solving real warehouse challenges at a time when existing operations and infrastructure were reaching a breaking point. Automation solution providers are leveraging technology to connect their products more easily to other products in the warehouse. They’re also building native connections for systems that need to synchronize.
The looming economic recession and the need to cut or eliminate capital expenditures are key influencers as well. This will increase the demand for mobile automation that doesn’t require custom racks and bins, but can work within existing infrastructure and drive more RaaS [robots as a service] adoption, where companies pay for the services that new equipment provides on a subscription basis.
Q: How will a recession affect the adoption of robotics, and why?
Josh Cloer – Mujin: Capital expenditure [CapEx] budgets tend to tighten during a recession, but some organizations will take the long view and see an opportunity to advance within their segment. With robotics and automation, you can do more within the space you currently own, and savvy strategists will take advantage of technology during a recession to do more with less. RaaS also offers benefits for many businesses that cannot sacrifice CapEx but have operational budgets that are being spent on manual labor today. When you combine RaaS with standardized solutions that can be deployed quickly and be dropped seamlessly into your existing operation, investing in robotics becomes a no-brainer—even during a recession.
Lotte Willems – Vanderlande: For companies that look ahead, robotics adoption can benefit from a recession because it gives them an opportunity to implement a pilot and start learning, so that they are ready to scale up when the business grows again.
TJ Fanning – SVT: A recession will have multiple impacts across the economy. The adoption of robotics will accelerate in some applications but will likely be delayed in others. I believe that a recession will further accelerate RaaS solutions as well as those that increase density. The traditional ROI [return on investment] to expand network capacity with a new distribution center will be delayed in order to quickly optimize an existing facility that, even with a recession, has a difficult time staffing a labor-intensive operation. The largest retailers and manufacturers will invest during the recession to create optimal supply chain solutions that establish a strategic, competitive advantage for years to come. Others will leverage 3PL [third-party logistics] organizations that are able to quickly deploy automation, which enables optimization of supply chain costs and required service levels.
Q: What should a company look for in an automation partner?
Lior Elazary – inVia Robotics: The ability to orchestrate processes across fulfillment or assembly operations is key for selecting an automation partner. With the proliferation of warehouse technology over the last several years, we now have a lot of great niche solutions. But if a niche is dependent on a handoff operation that’s slow and inefficient, then the whole operation will regress to the lowest common denominator. In order to make the entire operation efficient and meet daily service-level agreements, warehouses need a system that automates and optimizes all tasks so they can be coordinated and minimize idle time.
A key element of orchestration includes reshaping workflows. So, make sure your automation partner looks at your operation holistically and can recommend improvements across every point of inventory, order, and labor management.
Sean O’Farrell – Tompkins Robotics: Look for a company that can reduce the risks, budget, and space required to do an automation project. This company should be fast, flexible, and nimble, and be a good communicator throughout the process and journey.
Scott Matlock – Murata: The supplier should have tenured knowledge and long-term experience in providing engineering resources, specification for the project, installation, and long-term services solutions, and provide the necessary capital equipment to achieve the desires and actions of the customer/end-user.
Q: What is the biggest factor in a company’s decision to deploy robotics within a distribution environment?
Stanislas Normand – Exotec: I think it primarily comes down to two things: growing customer expectations and ongoing labor shortages. On one hand, Amazon continues to push the envelope on customer expectations with fast and free delivery. On the other, the traditional approach of “just throw people at the problem” no longer works due to a tighter labor market. This means that businesses increasingly need to do more with less, and that’s where robotics comes in.
Recent federal data shows that there are currently 10 million job openings in the U.S.—but only 6 million unemployed workers. This gap between open jobs and labor availability coupled with the fact that 80% of today’s warehouses have no automation indicates that there is enormous opportunity for improving operational efficiency with robotics. I expect that we’ll continue seeing rapid adoption of robotics in distribution environments in the coming years.
Lotte Willems – Vanderlande: You need to consider the business case. Questions to consider: How big is the issue of finding manual labor? What items can be picked by the robot? How accurately can the robot pick? What is the capacity? And what is the fill-rate of the orders?
TJ Fanning – SVT: Every distribution environment today is considering automation, but those that meet the following factors must implement automation to remain competitive. These factors include operating a minimum of three shifts per week, with at least six operators performing the same task continuously throughout the shift.
Value-added labor remains the most difficult-to-find commodity in distribution, especially with an average turnover rate of 44%. Even with the advancements in mobile robots as well as human-in-the-loop solutions, automation will never be as flexible as humans in performing a variety of tasks. But if an operator is performing the same task consistently and repeatedly, it’s time to automate!
Q: What is the next big advancement we can expect to see in robotics?
Mike Kasperski – enVista: Artificial intelligence (AI) is the next big advancement I expect us to see in robotics. AI can be a broad topic, but “vision” and “control” are going to be the next buzzwords when discussing industry advancement. This could come in the form of a visionary company using AI to help identify parts to be picked and learning from each picture, or utilizing vision software that tells the robot where to pick the part. While some robotics providers require each part to be “taught” so the robot knows what part it is looking for and where to pick it, some third-party companies do not require this. This is a developing technology that all the big players are heavily invested in.
Lotte Willems – Vanderlande: We should see increased flexibility of the gripper mechanism to increase the pickable-item set.
Josh Cloer – Mujin: Automation in warehouses has traditionally been all about the storage and retrieval operations. There have been some big investments in larger systems in the middle of the workflow, moving around pallets, cases, or totes to people around the outside managing receiving, stocking and replenishment, order fulfillment, and shipping. Today, intelligent robots have begun to play a role in the stocking/replenishment and order fulfillment processes, and there are some new solutions impacting shipping and receiving.
Going into the future, you’ll see more and more solutions around the “edge” of the warehouse dedicated to the case- and piece-level movements that support the trends we see in consumer expectations. In order to satisfy the consumer expectation of “buy today; ship today,” robots must support the edge of the warehouse.
Q: How do project managers sell the return on investment (ROI) of robotics projects to decision-makers?
Jim Lawton – Zebra: Historically, when calculating ROI for robotics automation, companies placed a disproportionate focus on headcount efficiency, i.e., how many people can a robot replace? Today, and especially as collaborative robots such as AMRs [autonomous mobile robots] have made robotic automation accessible to companies of all sizes, there are many other aspects being considered in calculating an ROI. What problem are they looking to solve? How frequently do processes run? Are there different needs throughout the duration of a day or a year? What is the outcome that will make them successful? Ultimately, improvements in productivity, efficiency, throughput, and accuracy are the measures by which any automation investment will be evaluated.
Sean O’Farrell – Tompkins Robotics: Experience from previous projects and the learning trends and pain points of customers who are considering automation are important in allowing the decision-maker to feel they are making good decisions. ROI usually starts with labor, because it is hard to find. Secondary factors are project timeline, payback in months and not years, portability of a project, and the long-term operating costs of the automation.
Lior Elazary – inVia Robotics: Capital expenditures create a big challenge for realizing faster ROI. That’s one reason why the industry has rallied around RaaS. This model eliminates the costs (and burdens) of equipment ownership, amortization, and maintenance. It also eliminates ancillary costs, including hiring and salary costs of additional staff needed to run it and provide upkeep. In true RaaS models (not simple equipment leases), a monthly subscription fee is paid solely for the productivity the equipment delivers. Project managers will likely see greater success selling robotics ROI when they propose solutions that don’t include equipment costs—whether that’s robots or the infrastructure to enable them.
Q: What is the industry doing to address the shortage of technicians needed to repair and service robots and automated equipment?
Sean O’Farrell – Tompkins Robotics: We are making our automated solution offerings to be as reliable as possible. Our robots over different models use the same motors and reducers to make parts interchangeable. This reduces the costs and the number of spare parts needed on-site. A robot in need of service can be quickly changed out with an operational one, reducing the impact to the operation and reducing the costs to have maintenance people standing by.
Scott Matlock – Murata: The growing conversion of material handling systems to an automated solution has allowed companies to “repurpose” some of their former warehouse and handling team members. Technical training is being offered by automated solution manufacturers, technical institutes, and some online training specialists. Most of the manufacturing and distribution industries have significant training and allocation budgets that allow for the modifications of the employees’ job titles and descriptions.
Don Dong – VisionNav: First is better usability and self-inspection functions. Nowadays, the operation of robot products is becoming more and more simple, lowering the threshold for users to use, and customers can quickly complete fault self-examination through a few steps.
Second is standardized delivery. With standardized project delivery and personnel training, users can solve most on-site problems alone.
And third is shared O&M [operations and maintenance] resources. Due to the standardization of robot technology and accessories, O&M resources can be shared, and localized services can be quickly realized.
Q: What do you tell prospective customers about how you’re addressing the parts shortages that have delayed many projects?
Josh Cloer – Mujin: At Mujin we take an agnostic approach to the hardware part of any automation solution. We find that typically someone has the right component in stock for our projects, and that can drive our partner and customer buying decisions.
Stanislas Normand – Exotec: Luckily, Exotec has not seen significant slowdowns amid the current supply chain challenges. That said, if you are experiencing delays due to supply chain disruptions, it’s critical to maintain frequent, honest, and proactive communication with the affected customers; otherwise, you risk breaching their trust, which ultimately will lead to losing their business.
Q: How do robotics as a service (RaaS) solutions help companies manage peak periods?
Mike Kasperski – enVista: As business increases during peak periods, RaaS may enable organizations to scale the number of robots in operation to meet the increased demand. Then when demand drops again, they can scale back their usage of the robots. This type of model would benefit both the RaaS provider and the customer. The AMR [autonomous mobile robot] industry seems to be experiencing much more need for RaaS than the industrial robot industry, where scalability comes at a lower cost versus a pack cell with several industrial robots.
Stanislas Normand – Exotec: I think robotics as a service is an excellent solution for managing peak seasons. It offers a great alternative to hiring temporary workers that get laid off the moment the peak is over. Due to the pay-as-you-go model, RaaS can have lower barriers to entry compared to traditional solutions, but over the long term will likely cost more than investing in your own system.
My advice for warehouse operators that are looking for RaaS solutions (or just general robotics solutions for their warehouse) is to consider the time and effort it takes to ramp up the solution. Not all robotics solutions are created equal, and if the onboarding and deployment take a long time, the investment in RaaS solutions may start to make less sense. I’d argue that if you are reliant on RaaS for all of your peak-season needs, in the long term it’s best to invest in your own system that scales up and down depending on your needs.
TJ Fanning – SVT: RaaS enables companies to quickly scale capacity to meet demands, without investing 12 to 18 months in advance in anticipation of unknown requirements. The peak periods remain highly variable, and it’s difficult to project random peaks that may occur—for example, consider what happened with toilet paper, masks, and gloves in 2021 or what we’ve since seen with conference equipment, desks, dress clothes, business cards, and other categories [of goods] required for people to return to the office. Those companies that offer true RaaS solutions also minimize the risk associated with selection and maintenance of the solution, which, as automation adoption accelerates, will be the next supply chain challenge—finding knowledgeable integration, deployment, and maintenance resources.
Q: What will robots be able to do within the next 10 years that they cannot do today?
Jim Lawton – Zebra: The pace of innovation makes it hard to say specifically what actions robots will be able to perform. What I can predict is that the innovation we will see will come much more from the software that provides the brains that control and manage the hardware. With innovative software, robots will be able to complete more work and perform more sophisticated work—e.g., picking the correct item from a bin full of items. Software will give robots a broader knowledge base from which to learn and give users greater flexibility in applications.
Of course, that’s not to say that hardware won’t advance as well. Sensor technology, for example, will become cheaper and more capable. All of this innovation will contribute to operations and what it means to work in those operations in ways we can only imagine—and maybe, just maybe, will change the image of robots from job killers to job enhancers.
Scott Matlock – Murata: Robotic automation in all aspects will continue to migrate within the material handling environment. In the very near future, all aspects of the material handling environment will possess full automation capability by utilizing a robotics solution—from moving pallets or cases from a delivery truck, to placing these items on the proper storage product, to picking the order from the storage device, and, finally, to packaging and delivery for release to the end-user.
Don Dong – VisionNav: We will see full autonomy in decision-making. At present, robots tend to follow pre-set tasks and execution tools for rules. In the next 10 years, by strengthening perception capabilities, such as vision and touch, and strengthening their deep learning abilities, robots will make completely autonomous decisions under the basic principles set by humans and be the best partner of humankind.
Copyright ©2023. All Rights ReservedDesign, CMS, Hosting & Web Development :: ePublishing