July 28, 2021

Sustaining a Lean Supply Chain in 2021 and Beyond

Strategies for continuous improvement of supply chain agility and growth

Never before has so much attention been given to supply chain agility and resiliency. Today, everyone is talking and thinking about the supply chain.

Whether it’s the cost of lumber, the delays in deliveries of new home appliances, the slowdowns for automotive manufacturers due to chip shortages, or the limited selection of bicycles and other outdoor gear – everyone is feeling the impacts of supply chain interruptions.

The combined forces of Brexit, the semiconductor chip shortage, trade wars and tariffs, the boom in IoT, natural disasters, labor shortages, and the pandemic have exposed the fragility of the tenuous links keeping the supply chain afloat.

There is renewed debate and question marks around lean manufacturing principles, just in time (JIT) manufacturing, and the balance between efficiency and resiliency.

Source: goleansixsigma.com

Lean manufacturing and six sigma have reshaped thinking around supply chain management, encouraging companies to focus on reducing waste, streamlining efficiencies, and cultivating a culture of continuous improvement.

While some are blaming JIT and lean manufacturing for today’s shortages in products and parts, and the general chaos in moving goods from manufacturing/assembly to distribution, it’s important to look deeper than this.

The nature of buying and selling in both B2B and B2C markets has changed dramatically in the last two years. Consumer demand for personalization and same-day delivery, and the boom in automation and IoT devices bring to light gaps in supply chain management strategies. What worked before, wasn’t necessarily broken – it just didn’t keep up with the times.

Lean supply chain practices are the way forward. But what is needed is an adjustment to how companies adhere to the principles of lean and six sigma – molding them to meet their needs and the demands of their customers. At the core of this is the value and importance of continuous improvement, contingency planning, and change management.

As this quote from Ford Motor Company Chief Executive Officer Jim Farley underscores, future supply chain resiliency starts with change:

As the industry changes, we have to in-source now, just like we in-sourced powertrains in the ’20s and ’30s,” said Farley, who has shut down half his factories and seen his dealers’ lots emptying because of a dearth of chips.

We have learned a lot through this crisis that can be applied to many critical components,” Farley told analysts last month as he announced Ford would lose half its production in the second quarter and take a $2.5 billion hit to earnings this year, citing a lack of chips. “We’re also thinking about what this means for the world of batteries and silicon and all sorts of other components that are really mission critical for our company.” Financial Times

Lean Six Sigma Supply Chain Management for Today and Tomorrow

The key for companies is finding the common ground between lean, six sigma, and the customer-driven supply chain. This is not an easy task, nor is it one that companies have been ignoring.

Stimulating change amidst high pressure situations such as a pandemic, labor shortages, floods and fires, stuck container ships, and the forced shutdown of international parts suppliers and manufacturers is a very big ask.

The good news is the five principles of lean six sigma are inherently flexible, giving companies the structure, guidance, and freedom required to enable purposeful change that shifts with the times.

  • Always be working for the customer. In today’s customer-driven market, where personalization, customization, and competition have taken on new meaning, companies cannot afford to lose sight of customer wants, needs, and challenges.

    What represents quality and satisfaction for our customers? How are our customers driving the market? How can we adapt to meet their new demands? What do we know about the technologies and market forces reshaping our industry?
  • Acknowledge your barriers to success and quality. Do not get caught up in change for the sake of change. Keep your focus on identifying key problems, risk areas, and barriers that are preventing you from delivering consistent quality and satisfaction.

    What does our research and data tell us about our gaps and areas for improvement? What are our biggest barriers and risks? How does change ensure these are eliminated? Will this change bring improvements for our customers? How can automation improve efficiency and eliminate delays?
  • Remove the inefficiencies contributing to these barriers. You cannot and should not change everything. Focus on removing inefficiencies, waste, and processes that cost you and your customers money and time. Ensure that any change in process is truly value-added. Work with a proven team who understands the challenges that come with change and the best way to strategically remove inefficiencies.

    How long does it take to get from idea to design to production to the customer? How can this process be streamlined and tightened? Where are the weaknesses that could put us at risk? Does this change still have the best needs of the customer in mind?
  • Always be communicating with your employees. Change is hard. It is critical you’re always communicating with your employees. Learn from them about the inefficiencies and gaps they deal with on a daily basis. Encourage your employees to speak up and be involved in changes to process and strategy.

    What are our employees telling us about areas for improvement? What are our customer-facing employees telling us about customer satisfaction, wants, and needs? How can we train employees on new processes and strategies? Who are our internal leaders who can help foster a culture of continuous improvement?
  • Be flexible, agile, and responsive. There is not one way to do anything. What worked yesterday likely won’t work tomorrow. Remember the lessons from the last two years and use these to reinforce a culture that can be agile, flexible, and responsive. Take advantage of the people, processes, and technology available today so you can be ready for the next disruption.

    What are the market trends? How have customer demands shifted? What technologies are available that can help us eliminate waste and streamline our processes? How can we learn from what didn’t work and apply this to new strategies for resiliency and agility? How can technologies such as automated mobile robots (AMRs) and big data bring resiliency and agility to our processes?

Supply Chain Realities and Challenges

I’ve turned down a million dollars’ worth of work in the last two weeks. Doing that, it’s hard to go to bed at night when you put your head to the pillow. I have open capacity, but I need more people.” Matt Guse, owner of MRS Machining, Augusta, GA

We’re seeing gangbuster levels of orders. But the sector has a lot of challenges, like a rise in raw material costs, supply chain disruptions, logistics bottlenecks and worker shortages.” Chad Moutray, chief economist for the National Association of Manufacturers

It was a lot easier to turn the lights out than to ramp up. Manufacturers weren’t prepared for a surge of demand in goods. They’ve been caught a bit flat-footed.” Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton, Chicago, IL

These three quotes from a recent New York Times article titled, As Economy Rebounds, Manufacturers Face New Hurdles, sum up the core supply chain challenges.

Across every sector – manufacturing, hospitality, travel, health care, education, and technology – companies are operating within a fine balance. Success and survival are directly linked to readily available people, products, knowledge, and demand.

Consider these three examples of disruption to people, products, knowledge, and demand:

Lean supply chains did not cause these disruptions, rather it was the accumulation of mounting pressures that ultimately caused the breakdowns and interruptions.

  • With an estimated 2.3 million women leaving the workforce due to the pandemic, the pre-pandemic labor shortage was exacerbated.
  • 5G, IoT, the surge in mobile technology in the automotive industry, and semiconductor chip manufacturing capacity operating at full capacity meant there was zero room to respond to increasing demands or to rebound quickly after forced plant closures.
  • Customer demands for personalization, same-day delivery and the rise in ecommerce triggered a change in what customers value most. The pandemic then caused a change in buying patterns – shortages of swimming pools, lumber, appliances, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer – and a lack of workers. These factors coupled with new health and safety requirements, and the grounding of distribution links, meant very few companies were able to respond quickly and efficiently to this surge in chaos. 

There is opportunity within these challenges. With a commitment to continuous improvement, focusing on the customer, eliminating barriers, streamlining efficiencies, and agility – companies can recover and be ready for the next disruption.

Five Strategies for Continuous Improvement

In the peak of the pandemic there were numerous articles and discussions about how JIT and lean manufacturing were the root of supply chain challenges. However, it is important to acknowledge that too many companies are attempting to utilize JIT and lean manufacturing within supply chains strategies that are too long, have too many dependencies, and are using outdated technologies.

Ultimately JIT and lean supply chain are about giving customers what they need.

Doing this effectively demands attention to the core principles of lean six sigma and building in continuous improvement strategies that take advantage of experience, technology, and people.

  1. Always be looking for opportunity: Supply chain management is not a static process. Continuous improvement means you’re constantly looking for the barriers to success, ways to speed time-to-market, increasing flexibility and agility, sticking to a zero-errors culture, standardizing processes to ensure safety and quality, and building a supportive employee environment.
  2. Take advantage of Industry 4.0: Technologies such as IoT, 5G and 6G, automation, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, and 24/7 connectivity give companies the tools and insight to be responsive and agile.
  3. Streamline warehousing and distribution: Co-locating warehousing and distribution, using automation such as robots to move goods safely and securely, and redefining JIT inventory level benchmarks are just some of the ways companies can fix one of the largest bottlenecks in modern supply chains.
  4. Eliminate waste: Core to lean manufacturing is reducing waste within the supply chain. Look for ways to eliminate defects, under-utilized employees, transportation slowdowns, excess inventory, inefficient processes in moving goods, and delays.
  5. Focus on the customer: Your goal is to provide value to the customer, and the best way to do this is by optimizing quality and reducing cost. For example, use big data to understand and predict customer patterns. Use automation and machine learning to improve product quality and speed time-to-market. Technologies such as AI, analytics, robotics, and more deliver real insight into what your customers want and why they want it. Use big data to define, measure, analyze, design, and verify new products, services, and processes.

The Toyota Product System (TPS) was developed in response to the production and delivery issues Ford experienced in the 1930s and post-World War II.

And now as we emerge from a global pandemic, we are on the cusp of the next wave of change within lean manufacturing and the application of lean six sigma to supply chain management.

This is an exciting time – never before has there been the experience, people, processes, and technology available to build truly resilient and optimized supply chains. Contact us to learn more about our approach to lean supply chain management and how automation can be a key partner in your lean manufacturing strategies.

June 23, 2021

Trends in Material Handling in a Post-Pandemic Supply Chain

How material handling equipment and technology help build supply chain resilience

Delivery wait times are no longer acceptable for consumers. In B2B and B2C, the fight for consumer loyalty and attention frequently comes down to order delivery efficiency and cost. 

This puts demands on companies to continuously improve internal efficiencies to remain agile enough to adjust to shifting market demands and supply chain realities. And as many companies have learned in this post-pandemic marketplace, living up to consumer expectations is achieved, in part, with supply chain resilience.

Material handling processes and equipment are essential to an effective and cost-efficient supply chain. Simply put, you cannot have a resilient and responsive supply chain, and a profitable warehousing and distribution strategy, without a modern approach to material handling equipment, technology, and processes.  

In this article we take a closer look at material handling, discussing:

  • Shifts in the post-pandemic supply chain and what this means for material handling
  • The principles of material handling and how these drive new processes
  • Key material handling trends shaping company supply chains and customer satisfaction
  • How disruptive technologies will continue to bring changes to material handling and supply chain management

Shifts in Post-Pandemic Supply Chain Management

The supply chain has been forced into change due to COVID-19, which exacerbated the long-simmering challenges in the pre-pandemic supply chain. The pandemic shone a spotlight on efficiency gaps and heightened the demand for continuous change within the supply chain. 

If anything, we have learned that nothing is static in supply chain management – whether it’s employee retention, managing just-in-time delivery, or how goods move from warehouse through to distribution and delivery with minimal costs and resource demands – adaptation and growth are essential. 

The 2020 State of Supply Chain Logistics Report released by the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) provides some strong insight into how post-pandemic supply chain management needs to shift, and the role of material handling in regaining stability:

  • Supporting demand for surges in areas like groceries and e-commerce.
  • Reconfiguring supply chains for other sectors, like heavy industry, that have cratered.
  • Adapting to the residual effects of social distancing, including accommodating an even larger consumer appetite for home deliveries.
  • Redirecting idle trucks and distribution center capacity to the booming sectors. Companies must recognize, though, that even with their renowned agility, logistics providers cannot reconfigure all their capabilities and relationships on the fly.
  • Becoming more flexible to cope with uncertainty which will result in less emphasis on lean operations and more on optionality and inventory. 

The CSCMP report estimates the pandemic-driven recession has ended 126 months of growth, creating lasting economic challenges, and has heightened global trade tensions. 

However, the good news is that supply chain professionals are adept at change, and we have all experienced first-hand how companies have been able to rethink internal processes to ensure employee health and safety while adjusting to consumer demands for immediate delivery, and personalized or customized products and services.

Importance of Material Handling for a Resilient and Effective Supply Chain

Supply chain success is directly tied to strong material handling processes, including using the most-appropriate technologies and equipment to meet material handling demands. 

The 10 Principles of Material Handling from MHI are long-standing best practices for developing material handling processes. 

We have taken a fresh look at these, thinking about them in the context of the recent pandemic and supply chain challenges. In fact, the 10 principles of material handling speak to how and why technology, automation, and continuous growth improvements are critical to a resilient and effective supply chain.

  1. Planning: having a material handling process that works today but is also able to flex and grow as required by internal and external demands and pressures. For example, being able to adjust to changes in workplace culture and the latest available technology.
  2. Standardization: standardizing on the right technologies for the right tasks. For example using AMR forklifts through-out a warehouse and distribution center to make employees available for higher-value tasks.
  3. Work: by implementing AMRs, cobots, WMS tools, and more, material handling processes can be optimized – doing more with less, while improving productivity. 
  4. Ergonomics: utilizing automation and technology to protect employees from risk and injury while ensuring goods and materials are moved, stored, and protected efficiently. 
  5. Unit load: the pandemic highlighted the need for companies to do more with less – fast-tracking automation adoption with solutions like automated pallet moverstuggers, and complete AMR systems
  6. Space utilization: this is an ongoing concern particularly when trying to reconfigure existing facilities to meet ecommerce demands, and consumer expectations for more personalized and customized products. This has sparked a change in the role of material handling in supporting warehouse space optimization to expedite last mile delivery of products. 
  7. System: utilizing technologies including automation, 5G, RFID, artificial intelligence, and mobile devices are essential to modern-day material movement and storage. 
  8. Environment: consumers want to know the lifecycle of the goods they’re buying, underscoring the importance for companies to have clear messaging around recycling, the environment, and clean energy. 
  9. Automationautomated material handling technology is aiding in ensuring product quality, employee safety, operational efficiencies, and better end-to-end material handling. 
  10. Life cycle cost: it’s important companies do not rush to the latest technologies without first assessing the ROI and infrastructure costs, and knowing which technology fits their needs today and can grow with changing demands. 

Companies cannot overlook how material handling ensures goods and materials are moved and stored safely, efficiently, and correctly through every step of the supply chain. 

Five Material Handling Trends Companies Need to Know 

The lessons learned from the pandemic emphasize how critical material handling is in ensuring company supply chains can respond quickly and efficiently to surging and unexpected product demands, and lags in delivery and logistics. They must be ready to anticipate forces beyond their control.

These five trends in material handling speak to the evolving nature of the law of supply and demand, and the power of the consumer.

Focus on Supply Chain Resiliency

While supply chain managers have always focused on resiliency, we are seeing an increased focus on adaptability and what this means for the modern-day supply chain. 

Companies are looking at how to use people, processes, and technology to build resilience and manage sudden change. 

We are seeing an increased and accelerated adoption of AMRs, robots, automation, additive manufacturing, reshoring, co-located warehousing and distribution, and more diversified supply chains. 

The next step for companies is to review their business continuity and disaster recovery plans and admit they need to make changes to support supply chain resiliency. They can then seek out experts across a range of domains including automation, robots, technology, material handling, and human resources who can help them make effective change. 

Industry 4.0

This fourth industrial revolution is reshaping the factory floor and how we think of manufacturing and distribution. Thanks to technologies such as AI, 5G and 6G, blockchain, IoT, and robotics engineering, deep opportunities for optimizing operations are available to companies of all sizes and domains. 

AI-powered blockchains deliver supply chain visibility, transparency, traceability, and flexibility. Together these technologies can for example, give real-time traceability to a product as it moves from source through to manufacturing to last-mile delivery, or predict peak demands for skilled employees and quickly manage the hiring and approval of these people. 

When compared to 4G, a 5G network is 10,000 times faster and can support 10,000 times more traffic. 5G and 6G technology deliver improved network speed, connectivity, and reliability, making it easier for companies to fully integrate IoT sensors, automation, and robotics into their supply chain. 

This push towards Industry 4.0 is further necessitated by employee demand – people want to use the same technologies at work as they are at home and at play – we see how these latest advancements make life easier and more productive, and want them in the workplace. 

The next step for companies is to start conversations with experts in fields such as big data, blockchain, cloud, and robotics to discuss how these technologies can be used now, and what the next wave of disruptive tech can bring to material handling and supply chain management. 

People First Culture

The strength of every company comes down to their people. One of the positive side effects of the pandemic is companies increasing their understanding of the importance of their employees. 

Companies who had long-resisted remote work now understand how people in a range of roles including sales, customer service, training and education, management, and human resources can work effectively from home, and in many cases with stronger results and improved efficiency. And within factories and manufacturing centers, employee health and safety has taken on new meaning, forcing companies to rethink every aspect of their material handling processes, and how new technologies can improve workplace safety and productivity.

The next step for companies is to listen and respond to employee feedback on workplace culture, and what creates a positive and productive workplace. A people first culture is critical to enabling a resilient and agile workplace that is able to respond quickly to unexpected events and demands. 

Automation and Software Integration

Technologies such as LiDAR, SLAM software, AMRs, cloud connectivity, machine learning, and AI are making it easier for companies to bring change to material handling without risk of business interruption and productivity slowdowns.

The next step for companies is to assess the real needs of their operation, their employees, and their customers to ensure the technology fits today, and that they position their material handling infrastructure to adapt quickly to industry shifts and market pressures. 

Ecommerce Readiness

Buying and selling is happening online. Whether it’s procuring automotive parts from a supplier, ordering pallets of seasonal goods, or selling direct to consumers, ecommerce must be part of every company’s business plan. 

Many companies were forced into ecommerce sales and distribution before they fully understood how this impacted customer service, inventory management, distribution, and new product demands and releases. And while we are now seeing a return to some of the pre-pandemic models of sales and distribution, companies cannot return to their old methods of doing business – if they do, their customers will move on.

The next step for companies is to invest in technologies and knowledge throughout every phase of design, manufacturing, procurement, sales, inventory management, and distribution to ensure they can sell online today and be ready to adjust quickly to the constantly evolving ways of buying and selling. 

How Material Handling Technology Helps Build Supply Chain Resilience

A warehouse and distribution center is made up of a lot of moving parts. As you know, a break-down in any one area, however minor, can have far-reaching impacts throughout your operation.

Material handling technology in 2021 gives companies the tools and capabilities they need to mitigate interruptions, manage productivity slowdowns, strengthen their ROI, and be ready to on-board new technologies more quickly and successfully. 

In the future we will see larger scale adoption of technology such as digital twins, additive manufacturing, blockchain, and AI improve the moving, controlling, protecting, and processing of goods within manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, and delivery.

But to be ready for future material handling technology, companies must get on-board today with technologies such as AMRs, automation, cloud computing, robots, and sorting machines. 

There is always a risk with adopting new technology, but if we’ve learned anything over the last 18 months it’s that it is best to be able to control the when, why, where, how, and what of disruption. 

Contact us to discuss how AMRs and automation can strengthen your material handling processes and build supply chain resiliency for your organization. 

May 18, 2021

A Roadmap to Successful Automation with AMRs

How and Why to Automate Your Operations

Resiliency and agility are prerequisites for companies who want to remain profitable and relevant.

Major advancements in automation technology, leadership, and expertise are enabling companies to make changes and optimize their operations with automation and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).

However, concerns over interruptions in the production environment and risks to throughput stability sometimes delay decisions to deploy automation. Understanding the challenges in moving from discussions about automation to a full-scale productive AMR deployment can address these concerns and get you on the path to automation.

In this blog post, we give you a roadmap to deploying automation– a proven process you can follow to ensure a successful, methodical, and strategic AMR implementation that mitigates as many risks as possible.

  1. Identify opportunities for automation
  2. Meet with an AMR vendor
  3. Develop and test an AMR deployment proof of concept
  4. Execute and evaluate a pilot in the production environment
  5. Move from pilot to deployment for a workflow
  6. Expand the AMR deployment to other workflows and facilities

How and Why Automation Helps Operations Management

Managing multiple business pressures from supply chain logistics, labor shortages, safety issues, through to ecommerce demands and the economics of running a sustainable operation underscore the benefits of automation.

  • Reduce operating costs, and increase operational and throughput efficiency by reallocating labor to value-added tasks.
  • Reduce labor and training costs while overcoming the skilled labor shortage.
  • Improve workplace health and safety with safer vehicles, predictable paths, and less human error.
  • Eliminate delays in replenishing raw materials and prevent costly bottlenecks.
  • Optimize how materials move from manufacturing to warehousing to distribution.
  • Eliminate the human errors that cause damaged goods, unnecessary waste and misplaced inventory.

The caveat is these AMR benefits require intentional action. Companies need to do their due diligence, understand the ROI of AMRs, and work with a proven robot manufacturer who makes safety, training, and customer service a priority.

Successful automation demands a thorough understanding of the business challenges and the best ways to implement technology for short- and long-term growth.

AMR and Automation Roadmap

Use our AMR and automation roadmap to guide you in enabling your operations to strategically take advantage of technology while strengthening your efficiencies.

1. Identify Opportunities for Automation

Review your operation for tasks that are:

  • Repetitive: is this a task that is repeated multiple times per shift? Automating repetitive tasks enables workers to stay engaged and focused on high-value tasks.
  • Predictable: does the task adhere to the same process every time? For example, moving materials from point A to point B, moving pallets from dock to storage, or just in time delivery of raw materials from storage to line-side.
  • Taxing on people: could automation reduce the physical requirements of employees? For example, eliminate moving heavy loads by hand or push carts.
  • Unsafe: can automation reduce or eliminate the safety risks and hazards? Review your risk assessment documents to understand your risks and opportunities for improvement. Look for risks that naturally lend themselves to automating, such as replacing manual forklifts with tuggers to move pallets of materials long distances.
  • Cause product or materials damage: is there a way to automate the process to reduce or eliminate the risk of damage? Robots have built-in sensors and safety features to prevent damage to materials.
  • Inefficient: does the task really require an employee? For example, instead of using a person to move a pallet from the end of line to a shrink wrap machine, with automation an order picker can press a call button to summon an autonomous forklift to move the completed pallet.

2. Meet with an AMR Vendor

It’s essential you work with an AMR vendor who understands the capabilities of their vehicles and knows how to identify the best opportunities in your operation for automation, and which robots are best suited for each task.

Remember, there is no one-size-fits all robot or automation deployment. Work with a vendor who looks at your unique needs and identifies the best opportunities for automation.

Your vendor should have the expertise to partner with you to identify the processes that need improvement and can benefit from automation. A knowledgeable vendor has the capabilities to quickly learn your operation and provide experience-backed advice on your automation opportunities.  

A proven and trusted vendor will:

  • Adopt a consultative approach to the sale. You need a long-term partner who can grow with you over time. Your vendor needs to do more than provide a quote for product. Look for a vendor who is your partner in creating and supporting an end-to-end solution that meets your specific needs and concerns.  
  • Take a holistic view of your operation. They should look at all of your processes and advise you on the most impactful (including labor, costs, and ROI) tasks for automation.
  • Create an intentional automation plan. Your vendor should provide you with a step-by-step plan for automating your facility, beginning with the workflows that are easiest and/or most impactful. Once people are accustomed to working with automation, more complex workflows can be implemented.
  • Arm you with a business case to justify the expense. A solid business case that takes in to account improved safety, resource re-allocation, and operational efficiencies provides the means to justify the expenditure to management.

3. Develop an AMR Deployment Proof of Concept (PoC)

Work with the vendor to develop a Proof of Concept (PoC) that helps you understand how and where the solution meets your requirements.

A PoC identifies objectives the robot is expected to meet and measures the results based on specific criteria. Your vendor should have a process for developing a PoC that is most applicable to the intended application. 

During the PoC, issues that apply across multiple workflows, such as connectivity or integration challenges, or unexpected interruptions to the larger production process can be identified and resolved, ensuring the pilot runs smoother and faster.

Ask these questions to define your PoC:

  • Does the robot do what they say it can? Ask the vendor to demonstrate proof of robot capabilities.
  • Does the robot act in a safe and predictable way? Ask the vendor to point out the robot’s safety features and provide documentation for regulatory compliance.
  • Does the robot perform the intended task as expected? Ask for a demonstration of the robot in action.
  • What is not working as expected and how does that affect the deployment? Work with your vendor to identify gaps and develop solutions.
  • What can be done to mitigate the risk for items not working as expected? Discuss ways to improve workflows and infrastructure to eliminate risk areas.

4. Execute and Evaluate a Pilot in the Production Environment

Executing a pilot in the production environment can be stressful. Ensuring that the pilot is a natural extension of the PoC helps mitigate some of the risk.

Five Items to remember during pilot execution:  

  1. Keep the pilot to a single task in a single workflow. For example, moving a pallet from end of line to a shrink wrap machine.
  2. Choose an AMR workflow that limits the exposure of the automated task to a single geographic area, a small group of employees and a clearly defined outcome. For example, moving materials from the inbound dock to storage.
  3. Fully train operators interacting with the robots to program and collaborate with them safely. Your vendor should provide training for all operators.
  4. Clearly communicate to all employees where the robots will be operating and how to interact with them should they encounter one.
  5. Evaluate and measure the pilot, adapting and re-defining it as you go.
Robots safely interact with workers

Evaluate the AMR pilot with these questions:

  • How does the robot integrate with my existing systems and infrastructure, both physical and technical?
  • Are significant changes to the infrastructure required for a successful deployment?
  • Does the robot perform the required task effectively?
  • Are we achieving the desired business outcome? Does this now take less time, use less employee hours, improve safety, and/or improve efficiency?
  • What observations do the employees programming, operating, and collaborating with the robots have? Is the system easy to use? Is it solving a problem? What workflow improvements can be made?
  • What feedback do employees that don’t directly interact with the robots have about the presence of robots in the operation? Is additional training required about how AMRs help employees?

5. Move from Pilot to Deployment

Once a pilot has proven out the business value of automation, deploy and measure.  

Use this strategy to move from pilot to deployment:

  1. Deploy one task inside a single workflow in a production environment and measure its effectiveness.  
  2. Make the necessary tweaks to optimize the process until all efficiency gains possible have been achieved.
  3. Measure progress to evaluate the degree of efficiency gained based on the stated goals.
  4. Calculate and understand how the pilot affects the profitability of your operation.

Once a single workflow is delivering on its stated goals, identify other opportunities in the operation where an analogous or similar workflow can be deployed. The second roll-out should be smoother and faster than the first due to similarities in the task and the success of the first deployment.

Deploying automation in place of known and understood workflows can feel uncomfortable. A production line being down for even minutes can affect overall throughput.

To prevent this, develop a conservative initial roll-out and risk mitigation plans to ensure unexpected events do not have lingering impacts. Work with your vendor to establish recovery plans to enable a proactive response and efficient fix to any issues that develop.

6. Expand the AMR Deployment to other Workflows and Facilities

  • Work with the AMR vendor to add automation to additional workflows and facilities. Now that the value of automation has been quantified and the risks have been identified and mitigated, it should be where are how to expand automation to other workflows or similar workflows thoughout the business.
  • Evaluate the functionality of the robot to determine if this robot can be applied to other workflows different requirements. Talk to your vendor about how the same robot can optimize other tasks and workflows that lend themselves to automation.
  • Define goals and metrics for new automation workflows and tasks. Measuring progress against these goals is paramount to making a business case for expanding automation in your operation.

Automating a facility can seem daunting and overwhelming, however much of this apprehension can be mitigated when you work with your vendor to establish a clear process for moving from opportunity evaluation to full-scale deployment.

Using a step-by-step automation roadmap allows you to develop clear goals and metrics, and measure progress throughout, ultimately ensuring the final deployments are safe, predictable and profitable.

Contact us to discuss your challenges and develop an automation roadmap.

April 13, 2021

The COVID-19 Impact on Manufacturing, Warehousing and Distribution

How the pandemic put a spotlight on automation and robots

The global pandemic has placed a spotlight on the fragility of modern supply chains and manufacturing processes. Tenuous links in the supply chain were quickly fractured with global shutdowns and the grounding of all travel.

Already stressed relationships with international suppliers, overburdened transport systems, a lack of end-to-end supply chain visibility, and outdated processes for monitoring and responding to demand, collapsed in February 2020.

Suddenly people were told to stay home – everything closed – stores, restaurants, schools, theaters, gyms, and office buildings. And with that, everything moved online, from seniors buying their groceries with a mobile app to kids attending virtual school through to the continual scheduling of Zoom meetings.

The demand on ecommerce was staggering. If it could be bought online, people were buying it and expecting same-day delivery. Companies were left scrambling, trying to figure out how to meet this heightened demand, keep their employees safe, and continue to operate without their usual supply chain networks.

Suddenly, overnight the how and where of manufacturing and distribution changed. Every link in the supply chain needed a makeover.

How could companies meet demands while keeping their employees safe and maintaining their bottom line? Conversations about infrastructure, reshoring, last-mile delivery, regionalization, automation, staffing, and ecommerce were happening across every industry.

And now, a little over a year later, many companies have the processes, people, and technology to respond to sudden change and interruptions.

Whether it’s autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) moving pallets instead of human-operated forklifts or reshoring manufacturing and distribution or taking advantage of 3D printing of parts and cobots, companies are finding new ways to remain viable and successful.

In this article we discuss how COVID-19 has turned challenge into opportunity, giving companies the motivation to change how they think about creating, making, assembling, and delivering parts and products.

COVID-19 Exposes Challenges in Manufacturing, Warehousing, and Distribution

In 2020 we saw the largest global manufacturing and factory shutdown since the 1940s. Starting with closures in China and quickly spreading throughout the world, manufacturing and supply chain operations came to a full stop by April 2020.

While definitive numbers on the impacts of these closures on sales, employment, profit, and long-term financial viability are not yet available we do know that the damages of the 2020 shutdown run deep. For example, Accenture highlights these numbers in its State of Supply Chains report:

  • 94% of Fortune 1000 companies saw supply chain disruptions from COVID-19.
  • 75% of companies have had negative or strongly negative impacts on their businesses.
  • 55% of companies plan to downgrade their growth outlooks (or have already done so).

The global pandemic has exacerbated long-standing supply chain challenges and created new ones for all companies regardless of size and industry:

  • Lack of skilled employees: with stay-at-home orders and universal concerns about workplace health and safety, the pre-pandemic labor shortage became a deal breaker for companies. When manufacturing and warehouses did reopen, it’s been very difficult to hire skilled employees and to keep them healthy and safe while maintaining profitable operations.
  • Social distancing mandates: maintaining 6 feet between employees in any business is an expensive challenge. Installing plexiglass dividers, acquiring enough PPE for employees, refactoring assembly lines to ensure safe distancing, and managing staffing levels required to meet customer demand forced a change in almost every process.
  • Global supply chain dependence: relying on offshore manufacturing and production collapses when ships, planes, and people are grounded. Pre-pandemic orders could not be filled, container ships packed with goods were left stranded at ports, assembly lines stopped mid-production, warehouses were locked with in-demand product lingering on the shelves, and companies had zero ability to respond to new customer orders.
  • Ecommerce boom: the acceleration in ecommerce purchasing caught many companies by surprise. With people told to stay-at-home, stores closed and even with the slow reopening of retail in some areas, ecommerce has remained the shopping medium of choice. Both B2B and B2C customers prefer to do their research and purchasing online with expectations for same- or next-day delivery. This puts focus squarely on rethinking how manufacturing and distribution can become more efficient.
  • Customer purchasing demands: pre-pandemic, companies relied on traditional product forecasts based on historical purchasing data. But with the pandemic, people realized there was a shortage of goods and materials, and quickly started buying in bulk and changing when they purchased seasonal goods – causing manufacturers and distributors to scramble to meet orders for everyday items from toilet paper through to bicycles and lumber.
  • Lack of supply chain transparency and insight: a remote supply chain footprint meant many companies lacked clear visibility into production and delivery timetables. This was further exacerbated by deep dependencies on and poor communication with Tier 1 suppliers.
  • Employee health and safety: pre-pandemic, concerns over employee safety on factory and warehouse floors was a growing concern. With 34,900 people per year suffering severe injuries in forklifts accidents, moving materials was already a risky business. Couple this with the unknowns around coronavirus transmission and people’s fears over losing their jobs due to sickness or time off – health and safety became a key focus in manufacturing, warehouses, and factories.

These challenges are heightened further by the unknowns around how and when we will return to business as normal.

Will consumers return to in-person shopping and traditional buying habits? What is the most effective way to move goods from manufacturing to the customer? Who will staff new regionalized manufacturing and distribution centers? How can companies affordably build resiliency into operations? What is the best way to bring technology and automation into manufacturing and warehousing?

Trends in Manufacturing, Distribution, and Supply Chain Management

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a wholesale change in how companies operate. This is a good thing. While change at any level is difficult, the changes spurred by the global pandemic have added stability to a precarious supply chain and allowed companies to strengthen their operations at all levels from design, production, packaging, and distribution.

Ideas or processes that were in the periphery pre-pandemic have now become key benchmark trends for companies who recognize that returning to the before times is not a viable option:

  • Additive manufacturing: 3D printing or additive manufacturing makes it easier for companies to affordably produce and deliver parts on an as-needed basis. This shift in manufacturing can decrease warehouses stocked with outdated parts and reduce dependencies on suppliers to manufacture and deliver parts.
  • Automation, robots, and AMRs: people are seeing first-hand how AMRs and automation can alleviate labor shortages, mitigate workplace health and safety concerns, and reliably manage same-day delivery expectations. AMRs give companies the freedom to reallocate skilled workers to more value-added tasks while reducing safety liabilities and increasing throughput efficiency.
  • Reshoring: while domestic manufacturing was moved offshore in an effort to combat production and labor costs, this has ultimately proved to be a costly strategy. Reshoring of manufacturing not only protects against future shutdowns, but it also allows companies to meet consumer demands for buying local. The ease-of-access to technologies such as AMRs, automation, and robots means companies can return to domestic manufacturing while keeping costs down and increasing skilled jobs for employees.
  • Co-located manufacturing and distribution: the essence of business is quick, accurate and efficient operations. And this speed and accuracy of material transport and storage is even more critical with the shift to ecommerce and same-day delivery. Companies who can bring manufacturing and distribution together and bring 3PL to distribution centers can adjust their business models to meet production volumes and delivery demands.
  • Diversified supply chains: continuity, flexibility, and agility are not buzz words for companies who want to remain in business – they underscore the need for change in supply chains. A diversified supply chain takes advantage of the latest in automation, IoT technologies, digital communication, omnichannel purchasing and sales, and AI to maximize efficiency and resiliency.
 

AMRs, Automation, and the Continuity of Business

COVID-19 reminded us of the importance of business continuity and recovery. New business demands require new ways of operating and thinking about how work gets done.

And this is where and how AMRs help companies adjust to the new normal, and remain prepared for what comes next.

  • Mitigating labor shortages: AMRs allow you to free employees from repetitive and risky tasks, allocating them to value-added and more interesting roles, thereby improving job satisfaction, reducing injury risk, and creating a more efficient workplace.
  • Improving workplace health and safety: AMRs mean fewer vehicles, predictable paths, robust safety features, easier-to-manage social distancing, and less human error.
  • Increasing throughput efficiency: eliminate delays in replenishing raw materials, prevent costly bottlenecks, and increase operational and throughput efficiency. 
  • Better material transport and storage: optimize how you move materials from manufacturing to distribution and delivery with intelligent AMRs designed to automate high payload material movement and work collaboratively with employees,
  • Improved product quality: eliminate human errors that cause damaged goods, unnecessary waste, and misplaced inventory.

AMRs and automation alone do not solve the very real-world challenges in supply chains, manufacturing, and distribution.

However, robots and technology do make it easier for companies to react, respond, and remain viable in the face of new business demands, economic uncertainty, and shifting consumer expectations.

Your operational needs today are very different from what they were in January 2020.

One of the core principles of an effective AMR deployment is remaining flexible and being able to grow and adapt as needed. And this holds true for every aspect of your manufacturing, distribution, and supply chains operations.

Contact us to learn how AMRs and automation can help you build a more resilient and responsive operation for today and tomorrow.

March 15, 2021

AMR Manufacturer, Integrator and Owner: What are Your Safety Responsibilities?

Understand how risk assessments and safety standards help you keep people safe

Moving materials does not need to be a risky business. Risk assessments, safety standards, technology, and taking responsibility for safety contribute to eliminating workplace risk.

From increasing profits and improved productivity to more confident employees – the benefits of a safe workplace run deep.

The challenge for many companies is how to consistently maintain a safe workplace without creating barriers to productivity or innovation. Enter autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). The very nature of AMRs and the processes involved in designing a high-functioning AMR system mean that risks are identified, and solutions are found to keep people safe and productive.

The AMR manufacturer, integrator, and owner all have important responsibilities in ensuring the AMR system is well-designed with safety at the core.

  • AMR Manufacturer: uses their knowledge of their robots, fleet control software, safety standards and compliance.
  • AMR Integrator: uses their understanding of how to design a safe AMR system.
  • AMR Owner: uses their knowledge of their operation, inherent risks, peak periods, payload demands, and employee concerns.

By working together and sharing knowledge, everyone has an essential role in ensuring a safe workplace where people and robots can work side by side.

In this second of our two-part series on automation and safety we focus on the roles and responsibilities of the robot manufacturer, integrator, and owner in designing and deploying safe AMR solutions. Read Safety, Your Operations, and AMRs, the first article in this two-part series to learn about AMRs and their role in safety.

Watch the Mobile Robot Safety: Risks, Responsibilities and ROI webinar to learn from Justin Holwell, Director of Hardware and Controls Engineering, about risk assessment and manufacturer, integrator, and owner responsibilities in workplace safety.

Safety Standards and Regulations Matter

There are two types of AMR safety requirements and standards crucial to creating a safer workplace:

  1. Regulatory standards defined by OSHA in the U.S. These standards are compulsory and must be adhered to by law.
  2. Industry standards defined by organizations to improve AMR safety requirements. While these standards are voluntary, it is in the best interest of the robot manufacturer, integrator, and owner to follow them.

Two new standards were released to address safety standards and requirements for AMRs:

  • ISO 3691-4 was published in February 2020. It specifies safety requirements and the means for their verification for driverless industrial trucks and their systems. Driverless industrial trucks (trucks of ISO 5053-1) can also be known as: automated guided vehicles, autonomous mobile robots, bots, automated guided carts, tunnel tuggers, under carts, etc.
  • ANSI/RIA R15.08 was published in January 2021. It provides technical requirements for the design of industrial mobile robots to support the safety of people who work near them. The primary audience for R15.08 Part 1 is mobile robot manufacturers. However, integrators and owners should also be familiar with these requirements. More detailed requirements for integrators and owners will be specified in R15.08 Parts 2 and 3.

It’s essential to workplace safety that manufacturers, integrators, and owners read and adhere to these safety standards.

This infographic from the National Safety Council underscores the risk forklifts impose in the workplace and should motivate everyone to provide a safe workplace.

It is the clear responsibility of the robot manufacturer, integrator, and owner to complete thorough risk assessments, safety standards due diligence, and to design, operate, and maintain safe AMRs systems and a safe workplace.

AutoGuide safety and application experts can help with understanding safety standards, defining risk assessment best practices, and in the safety assessment of the overall AMR system.

Risk Assessment, AMRs, and You

The manufacturer, integrator, and owner share responsibility for safety and in ensuring risk assessments are thorough and system design is optimized for safety based on the risk assessment results.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety defines risk assessment as the overall process or method used to:

  • Identify hazards and risk factors that have the potential to cause harm (hazard identification).
  • Analyze and educate the risk associated with that hazard (risk analysis and risk evaluation).
  • Determine appropriate ways to eliminate the hazard or control the risk when the hazard cannot be eliminated (risk control).

As a robot owner, the risk assessment process gives you confidence and assurance that your AMR system is well-designed to control and eliminate risk.

An integrator, for example may use a risk assessment process that identifies specific risks and then evaluates them on a scale of low to high for seriousness, frequency, and probability for each risk. They then develop a solution architecture and deployment plan to eliminate, when possible, and mitigate these risks to ensure the system designed is as safe as possible.

Watch our Mobile Robot Safety: Risks, Responsibilities and ROI webinar, for a detailed example of what is involved in a risk assessment and how to determine your level of risk.  

A thorough walk through of the operation determines how the AMR system can help, the level of performance required of the AMR system, and how the robots need to operate in the system.

When risks are identified in a deployment, use mitigation to look for ways to reduce the severity, frequency, and probability of the risk. For example, this can include adjusting the robot speed, increasing enunciation, or adding in guarding or floor markings to eliminate the probability and frequency of the risk.

Risk assessments are a collective responsibility. The robot manufacturer, integrator, and owner should work together to define risk assessment checklists, mitigation processes, and a well-designed AMR system. Each role has a unique perspective on safety, risk, AMR capabilities, and the overall operations.

In part one of this two-part series, we discuss AMRs and their role in safety.

AMR Manufacturer: What are Your Safety Responsibilities?

The AMR manufacturer must prioritize designing an AMR that adheres to the latest OSHA and industry standards. Safety starts with robot design and the fleet control software capabilities.

The integrator, owner, and employees expect the AMR manufacturer to build a robot that uses the latest in safety and sensing technologies including:

  • Obstacle detection sensors, such as LiDAR scanners and simultaneous location and mapping (SLAM) capabilities.
  • Motor speed encoders are used for overspeed detection and a safe way to monitor robot speed, ensuring it does not exceed prescribed speed limits.
  • On-board safety controller that manages the robots’ decisions as they navigate the facility and forces the robot to stop should an obstacle be detected. For example, a person standing in the robot’s path.
  • Warning lights and audible alerts to warn people of the robot’s presence and to indicate changes in behavior. For example, enunciating the approach to a docking area and moving into a lifting function or using turn signals to indicate a change in direction.
  • Emergency stop buttons that allow people to press a button and immediately stop the robot or prevent the robot from moving in an unintended start up should this be necessary.
  • CE certification for robots sold in Europe.
  • Fleet control software that maps the facility, identifies intersections and doorways, and communicates with the robots as they travel along pre-defined paths.

Watch our Mobile Robot Safety: Risks, Responsibilities and ROI webinar, for a detailed description of how AMR collision avoidance systems keep people safe and robots under control.

AMR Integrator: What are Your Responsibilities?

The integrator is responsible for assessing the entire workplace to ensure AMRs can be used safely, and designing the AMR system.

This role demands that the integrator review and understand every aspect of the operation from structural limitations and employee behaviors, through to how the AMRs will be used.

The risk assessment process must include an evaluation of:

  • The AMRs. Are the AMRs safe? Do they have the required safety functions and capabilities?
  • The environment. How big are the doorways? Where are the intersections and how busy are they? Where and how often are people and robots moving through the same area? What is the floor surface like?
  • Payload transfer areas. Where and how are packages conveyed? What is the location of the racks the robots will be using for pick and place? Where will loads be transferred? Are the loads stable?
  • Other material handling equipment. Is there other equipment being used? How is this equipment controlled and operated? How do the AMRs interact with this equipment?
  • People. What are the peak capacity times? How do people move through the environment? How are people currently interacting with machinery and equipment?

A risk assessment gives everyone the confidence that the AMRs can react and respond to unexpected people or other obstacles in their pathway. During the risk assessment, think about how the environment can best support people and robots who are focused on their jobs.

AMRs are designed to be safe, but this is only the first step in creating a safe workplace. The integrator needs to fully understand the environment and the expectations for the AMRs when designing the overall AMR system.

AMR Owner: What are Your Responsibilities?

The AMR owner is responsible for buying safe robots and ensuring employee safety at all times. The owner should work with the integrator during the risk assessment process to ensure the environment is assessed and understood correctly.

If the owner is also the integrator, the owner must complete a thorough risk assessment before designing the AMR system and deploying AMRs. It’s crucial the owner, when acting as the integrator does not make assumptions about the environment, due to being immersed in the day-to-day operations.

To ensure workplace safety, the AMR owner is responsible for:

  • Buying safe AMRs that adhere to the latest OSHA and industry standards. Read Safety, Your Operations, and AMRs to learn how AMRs contribute to workplace safety.
  • Defining safe and functional AMR routes, and ensuring these routes account for any obstacles and people they may need to interact with.
  • Staying updated with changes to the environment that can impact safety and AMR travel throughout the space. For example, if shelving is moved or an extension is added, a risk assessment must be completed to ensure all routes are free from hazards and obstacles.
  • Ensuring payload stability, making sure the material being moved is safe and stable so the AMRs can function correctly and safely.
  • Maintain the floor surface conditions so the robots have the requisite traction to stop and move safely. Be aware of and prevent issues such as wet floor surfaces, debris, or obstacles blocking AMR routes.
  • Stay updated with local, state, county, OSHA, and industry standards, and how the AMR system is impacted. Review the latest industry standards and take advantage of safety guidelines and recommendations. 

In our Mobile Robot Safety: Risks, Responsibilities and ROI webinar, Justin Holwell, Director of Hardware and Controls Engineering, uses real-world examples of how the risk assessments and safety standards fit together to help robot owners maintain a safe workplace.

An often-overlooked aspect to workplace safety is the awareness of and confidence employees have in AMRs. The robot owner should be proactive in communicating with employees how AMRs function, explaining the safety controls, and highlighting how AMRs eliminate repetitive, high-strain, and dangerous activities from the employees’ workday.

AMRs and Your Safe Operations

It’s time for new statistics that highlight the reduction in workplace injuries, accidents, and deaths. By designing and investing in safe AMRs, adhering to industry standards and risk assessment protocols, and educating employees, change can happen.

Workplace safety cannot be a monthly theme or campaign. Contact us to learn how we design our AMRs and SurePath fleet control software to be safe and reliable. Our safety experts can help you create a safe and trusted workplace.