Five steps to get started with robotics automation


An interview with materials handling industry veteran Bryan Arnold.

By Barbara Buell

You’ve been in the industry for 17 years. What do I need to know about the evolution of robotics in e-commerce fulfillment?
Arnold: In the last 15 years or so, autonomous mobile robots (AMR) and automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) have become well established in goods-to-person (G2P) warehouse fulfillment. The latest area of technology migration is the goods-to-robot (G2R) function that expands the role robots play on the warehouse floor. G2R is where the greatest gains in efficiency and accuracy can be achieved, and where labor shortages persist. Typically, this activity involves an AI-driven robot that does piece picking – a laborious, repetitive job previously handled only by humans. This may involve picking many different kinds of products in conjunction with sortation, induction, depalletization, decanting (unpacking boxes), and bagging of products for processing downstream.

How do I get started with a robotics project in the e-commerce fulfillment space?
Arnold: There are five things you need to do to launch a successful project.
Step 1: Articulate your business goal(s) and measurable results.
Step 2: Assess your needs.
Step 3: Develop a plan to upskill employees as the project takes shape.
Step 4: Make sure your vendor provides a documented project implementation plan and customer support program.
Step 5: Consider how you will finance and justify the project.

Let’s take Step 1. How do you get started with articulating the goal?
Arnold: Seek clear internal agreement on the problem you want to solve so you can identify vendors with the right capabilities. Include the C-suite, as well as floor operators, in the discussion and decisions. Identify what problem you are trying to solve: Demand? Labor? Speed? Cost? Safety?

And Step 2: What does assessment mean?
Arnold: Working with your warehouse floor team, review the mix of processes you need – receiving, depalletization, decanting, storage and retrieval, piece picking, induction/sortation, value-added services (gift wrap, bag & tag, etc.), pack out, and/or shipping. What is the cadence of product flow? Are goods coming in evenly every hour or is there a large delivery every week that must be processed quickly? Your vendor should conduct an upfront feasibility study to determine the best options for your existing or greenfield setup. Plus, your new robotic solution should allow for flexible handling of multiple product types and flows as your business changes over time.

You recommend upskilling employees in Step 3. Why is that important?
Arnold: You need to investigate various training options to upskill your employees so they can assume new value-added roles within the warehouse, which will minimize turnover. 

In Step 4, what are the elements of a good customer support program?
Arnold: Look for a vendor that has e-commerce fulfillment industry experience, as well as capacity to take on the job. Integrating different automation systems in a brownfield or greenfield environment is complex, so make sure your vendor is willing and able to support you before the sale and once deployment begins.  There should be a well-defined and documented process for project implementation and client hand-off, plus regular customer business reviews, and a sustainable lifecycle plan to keep the solution running optimally after installation. You want a vendor who will get you to the finish line, successfully. 

What about Step 5: financing the project?
Arnold: Traditionally, factory and distribution automation was funded as a capital expenditure, but you should consider lower-risk alternate plans to finance your project. Robot-as-a-Service (RaaS) contracts – essentially, that’s rent-a-robot – are a fixed expense, and can be less risky than a costly upfront capital investment. RaaS plans are becoming more common, and many vendors now offer them.

When exploring e-commerce fulfillment automation, what questions should I ask an integrator versus a robotics company?
Arnold: With integrators, make sure they have capacity. Global warehouse capacity is expected to double from 3 billion square feet of new warehouse space in 2020 to 6.3 billion square feet in 2025, according to the research firm Interact Analysis. Many integrators are backlogged for months, if not years, with existing and future projects. What is your time horizon for implementation – and theirs?  With a robotics company, ask them if they provide turnkey solutions.

How else can I get started?
Arnold: If you are a manufacturer, retailer or 3PL that requires e-commerce order fulfillment, consider a robotic piece-picking company like OSARO, or look for companies like OSARO or SVT Robotics who have relationships with AMR/ASRS companies (Geek+, Dematic) and integrators (KPI, JR Automation).

What happens after installation is complete?
Arnold: You need to monitor/measure project success against best practices and continuous improvement. There are generally five business objectives to consider: sales/revenue, productivity (such as pick-to-ship cycle time), quality (such as lower mispicks and damage rates), compliance (such as safety), and profitability.

Bryan Arnold has 23 years of experience in technical sales, 16 of them in the material handling automation industry. That included two years at Daifuku Wynright, four years at Retrotech/Dematic, seven years at Honeywell Intelligrated, and three years at SencorpWhite. As director of sales at OSARO, Bryan applies his deep, integration-oriented knowledge of e-commerce automation technologies to identify client issues and business advantages to be gained based on revenue, cycle time, quality, compliance, or profitability improvements. He is a graduate of Texas A&M with a BS in Industrial Distribution.

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