Autonomous Mobile Robots are Driving Productivity and Enabling Flexible Automation

This past holiday season, more robots than ever were involved in the handling and shipping of your ecommerce orders and the movement of packages from fulfillment centers to your doorstep.  The past several years have seen a significant uptick in interest in robots, but 2018 saw an evolution from interest and pilot programs to full on deployment and value generation.  In fact, two vendors of autonomous mobile robots (AMR’s) made some news with the volume of units that their robots supported in the fulfillment process. 

Boston based Locus Robotics announced that through the month of November, its robots handled over 3 million units.  Adding to this, Locus Robotics CEO Rick Faulk pointed out that “The volume grew week over week, and we actually hit 200,000 units per day during Cyber Week. These milestones are a testament to Locus’s ability to nimbly adapt to rapid changes in volume on a monthly – or even daily – basis, in order to drive real productivity gains for our customers.”

Another Boston based provider of AMR’s, 6 River Systems, also made announcements around the volume of units its robots had handled during the holiday season. CHUCK’s, the name of the 6 River System robots, handled over 1 million units across the 25 sites they are deployed in the US during the 5 days of “Cyber Week”.  Indeed, as 6 River Systems CEO Jerome Dubois points out, this is a big milestone, “This proves what we’ve known for quite some time now: logistics leaders have new options for automation. They don’t have to settle for the status quo, traditional automation that is clunky, non-scalable and expensive.”

Autonomous mobile robots provide the ability for organizations to deploy automation technology that is not constrained by configuration and facility design, as is the case with traditional fixed automation.  This is not to say that traditional automation is going to be displaced by robots, it is not.  Rather, what ARM technology is doing is giving the ability to deploy automation into new areas, new markets, and new buyers that have neither the budget or resources for fixed automation such as conveyance or sortation for example. It is also enabling those organizations that utilize traditional fixed automation to deploy a flexible automation strategy that extends its automation capabilities. 

By deploying AMRs and other commercial service and collaborative robotics into operations, organizations, such as those referenced using the robots of Locus Robotics and 6 River Systems, companies can drive greater performance out of the people within their operation.  In these environments, the robots are taking on certain aspects of the job, while not replacing the human, which allows the people in the operation to focus their efforts elsewhere.  Thus, the overall operation is able to drive productivity improvements, as it is able to get the same or better output and performance with the existing base of workers. 

This is especially important in the world of e-commerce order fulfillment, which is an industry characterized by significant seasonal spikes in demand. Without the help of autonomous mobile robots, these organizations must rely on the availability of temporary labor to help manage increased demand.  However, the current labor climate is making this challenging as jobs are going unfilled due to a lack of available people and/or people not willing or unable to take on some of these jobs.  So, companies are turning to AMRs to automate the non-value adding movement of material throughout a fulfillment center which is helping to increase productivity and allow organizations to meet their demand requirements with less reliance to temporary staffing spikes.  Furthermore, many of the vendors of AMR’s have adopted a robot-as-a-service model.  This model allows buyers to deploy the technology without the cost associated with capital expenditure and instead transition the cost to an operating expense.  Thus, it becomes easier to scale up/down capacity by simply deploying more robots into the operation.

In IDC’s 2018 North American Commercial Service Robotics Survey, we found that the top reason companies deployed or are considering commercial service robotics is to improve productivity/efficiency. The same survey found that improvements to productivity/efficiency was a top 4 benefit achieved, and at more than 70% of companies that had deployed commercial service robotics, the improvement to productivity and efficiency was in the double-digits. Given the hype around robotics these days, it is with good reason.  Robots are delivering on the promise of significant benefit across a variety of key business metrics, and improving productivity is among the top.

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