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with international suppliers, overburdened transport systems, a lack of end-to-end supply chain visibility, and outdated processes for monitoring and responding to demand, collapsed in February 2020.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


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.