From rising labor costs to a shrinking skilled workforce to increasing pressure for next-day, same-day, and two-hour delivery, today's order fulfillment business faces many new challenges.
Broadly speaking, recent decades have brought monumental changes to the world of order fulfillment and material handling. Distribution centers, logistic departments, agriculture corporations and healthcare institutions are all seeking new and innovative ways to evolve operational productivity, speed and safety.
Therefore, they are resorting to what we know of nowadays as “autonomous mobile robots” (AMRs), a type of robot that can independently sense and navigate its environment, to assist them with their daily tasks and help them improve their productivity with minimal effort.
AMRs differ from automated guided vehicles (AGVs), which are movable robots that follow long lines or wires marked on the ground or use radio waves, vision cameras, magnets or lasers for navigation. AMRs are practically robots that are made of a complex array of sensors, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and path-planning computers to perceive and navigate their surroundings, independent of hard-wired power.
Far more affordable than traditional automation, AMR is installed once and easily scales for long-term growth or short-term seasonality.
Types of Autonomous Mobile Robots
In spite of the fact that AMRs are still a relatively new technology, they have already branched out into many different variants, each better suited to perform specific types of actions.
For this reason, discussions about AMRs tend to focus more on the applications of the technology rather than specific names and models.
In this day and age, AMRs are comprised of four types, and each one is intended to perform in a specific way, combining different tasks that make the operations and work of daily life easier.
- AMRs designed for transportation
Transporting inventory or materials is a low-skill, repetitive task that is often tiring and time-consuming. Transportation is no longer a significant cost to the product and is frequently one of the first tasks to be automated. AMRs for transportation give employees authorization to carry out varying and greater duties inside the facility, making the tasks effortless and undemanding.
AMRs are usually used to transport raw materials from warehouses to production lines. Such transport conducted by AMRs no longer requires permanent pathways or cables embedded in the warehouse floor.
Moreover, these robots transport unfinished products to the production line and finished products to the warehouse for distribution.
AMRs are equipped with sensors and cameras to help them navigate controlled spaces like warehouses. They can be faster than humans at processing multiple orders from different areas of the warehouse at the same time, providing proximity to a specific delivery point within the warehouse as well as transport to the warehouse itself.
For instance, in June 2022, Amazon launched the first fully autonomous mobile robot called Proteus. It uses advanced safety, sensing and navigation technology to move autonomously throughout the facility.
The brand-new Proteus robot rolls on wheels and has a low center of gravity. Although it appears to be a type of robot vacuum cleaner at first, this device actually performs transportation tasks rather than cleaning tasks. Proteus uses sensors, just like a robot vacuum, to navigate and avoid obstacles, even moving ones like people.
Amazon has lauded the robots it deploys for their ability to reduce physical strain on employees, among other benefits. Indeed, the company is increasing its investment in robotics to maximize overall performance.
- AMRs designed for picking
Many warehouses still use the “pick-by-paper” method, where workers are given a batch of shipping labels in a picking location sequence, with the location for each pick printed on the labels themselves. The travel time associated with picking can be significantly reduced by AMRs and their picking efficiencies. The picker's travel time can be cut in half with these cooperative robots, which can bring the products directly and quickly to them. An AMR can, for instance, pick an item for a worker instead of requiring them to walk from their station to a shelf and back, saving that worker time and effort.
As an example, with G2P logic (i.e., goods-to-person), the AMRs move through the shelves and precisely locate the one where the needed item is stored, while the operator is given a picking station to prepare the order. The operator receives the shelf with the relevant item and adds the item to the order that is currently being prepared.
- AMRs designed for sorting
AMRs are suitable for sorting procedures because they are equipped with a variety of technologies. AMRs with tilt trays, cross-belt systems and conveyor rollers can provide a range of sorting options, including:
- High-speed parcel sortation
- Ecommerce order fulfillment
- Returns handling
- Short-term sortation
For instance, in high-speed parcel sortation, these cooperative robots place and position orders using chutes on levels. When an item's barcode is read by a station camera and recognized, it can be launched to its intended chute.
- AMRs designed for inventory visibility
Every warehouse must have accurate and obvious inventory visibility. An AMR with warehouse scanning capabilities will show you where a product is in relation to the warehouse, distribution center and supply chain.
Movement, tracking and reconciliation of inventory can be difficult and time-consuming for large and complex operations. The time and money spent tracking inventory can be significantly reduced by integrating AMRs within systems and automating the inventory control procedures.
Efficiency of Internal Logistics Automation
AMRs can be essential in providing maximized efficiency. Firstly, AMRs decrease the lead time by determining the quickest path from point A to point B. If they run into difficulties, they reroute or call for assistance. By ensuring that materials are delivered on time, AMRs avoid obstacles that slow or delay a process and lengthen the waiting periods.
Second, AMRs provide an increased return on investment through a fast, reliable procedure. Low initial costs are made possible by the simple integration and the lack of need for changes to the current factory layout. AMRs can work continuously for 12 to 15 hours, making them a dependable workforce. When they are not working, they can automatically bill, which promotes efficient internal logistics and guarantees a smooth workflow. Due to the simplicity of this robotic integration and the freeing up of employees to perform higher-value tasks, the ROI is typically less than a year.
Third of all, the flexibility of internal logistics can be maximized. For instance, when changing the layout of a factory, AMRs can be used to eliminate the need to move the fixed conveyor belts and design new magnetic paths for your AGVs. Instead, the map is simply altered within the user-friendly software of the robot. At the same time, one can modify the robots to suit specific requirements. A roller conveyor can be easily integrated with the robot if it is required that the AMR act as the flexible link between conveyor belts.
Finally, AMRs can work alongside people without the need for safety precautions because they are cooperative. They always avoid obstacles, including people, and stop if approached too closely. Therefore, AMRs are a secure substitute for forklifts, stackers and trucks driving indoors, which can too frequently result in collisions and other work-related injuries. Additionally, when robots take over the logistics tasks, workers can save time and effort by eliminating strenuous lifting, lowering their physical and mental stress levels. The collaborative nature of these robots and their design for maximizing human interaction have strong advantages for both usability and safety. Anyone can now learn to program these robots thanks to the AMRs' simple and intuitive interface. Such ease then makes it possible to operate and program without prior programming knowledge, allowing immediate access to their benefits and value.