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.