Building World-Class Operations with Robots and People: Leave the Lights On.


For years, there has been a lot of noise that the “lights off” replacement of people by robots in many sectors is imminent. The reality is that it is just noise. Robotics technology is simply not at a point where machines can replace people completely. Labour intensive operations, like assembly and warehousing, are better served by a “lights on” approach that recognises the model that works best is the one that combines machines with human talent to improve productivity, efficiency and quality.

Machines like autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) eliminate the time wasted by people running back and forth and reduce the burden of tasks that require repetitive and sometimes harmful motion. Robots allow people to focus on what they do best: use their dexterity, solve problems, identify opportunities for innovation and ensure that work is done well. 

The latest Zebra Warehousing Vision Study highlights that for those who work in a warehouse environment, the model is effective. Associates who work alongside AMRs today confirm they have seen the benefits, reporting that AMRs have helped increase productivity and reduce walking/travel time (83%), reduce errors (73%), and enable advancement to new roles or opportunities (65%).

Without the help of robots, humans aren’t going to be able to keep up with global commerce demands. People simply can’t move goods – raw materials or finished products – from point A to point B fast enough. With robotics automation, supply chain companies will do more than keep up – they’ll strengthen agility and performance in even the most transitory times.

Start with Tasks, Then Move to Processes

The fastest path to getting a return on investment from AMRs is to look for and start with the non-value add tasks that people are doing. In the warehouse, there are a lot of them. From unloading inbound inventory to walking miles between aisles and zones to find, pick and pack orders to hauling recycling out – all of these are tasks that robots are much better suited to handle. Relieving people of the material movement necessity eliminates wasted time, energy and talent and makes it possible for productivity and efficiency to climb.

As automation moves into the mainstream, customers recognise that point solutions are not enough. They no longer ask, “How can I automate this task?” and instead ask, “How do I automate this process?” That means the solutions must embrace the reality of the environment – that there are many steps in any process, with many devices involved. 

The focus must be on solutions that orchestrate and coordinate all those devices and activities to work together to smooth and speed the process. For example, an associate using a wearable device receives information regarding an inbound order. Using their mobile handheld computer or wearable, they meet up with an AMR at a pick location. The AMR gets the item from the associate who has already picked it and then takes it to the point where it can be packed and shipped. In this way, the devices are able to coordinate the different actions and improve productivity and throughput. 

In another example, Bespoke Manufacturing Company (BMC), which produces custom, on-demand fashion and textile items and reduces fashion waste by 99% – uses fixed industrial scanners and AMRs to manage the delivery of raw materials needed to complete an order to the production line. Advanced software directs the AMR to deliver just what is needed for the item to be completed, eliminating steps that are unnecessary, streamlining production workflows and accelerating delivery to the customer. 

Software is for Robots and Workers

In the warehouse, questions including which robot is carrying which order, how many items are assigned to that robot, how many orders are assigned to that robot, what is the best route for the robot to take to fully execute the order – from pick to pack to ship – are critical to quickly and efficiently completing orders. 

Getting those answers – and many others – that are required for the operation to perform as it must – requires innovative software that can analyse myriad variables and make optimal choices.

Software acts as the brain that makes the robotic hardware optimally perform the workflow.  Too often, robot companies focus only on addressing what the robot needs to do and ignoring the rest. Robotics automation can be integrated into a warehouse management system and orchestrate both automated and manual tasks— coordinating human workers and robots to act together in the best way.

This requires software that looks not just at the people or just the robots but simultaneously supports the automated picking and the manual picking activity, without the need for reconfiguration or renovation of the existing space or additional equipment or infrastructure, like safety cages. Software dynamically allocates to the most efficient modality – whether that’s people only, robots only, or a combination of both.

Operations teams need solutions that optimise both what robots do and what people do. That’s true today and will be for a long time to come. That means “lights on” collaboration so people can do their best work.

Jim Lawton, General Manager and Vice President, Robotics Automation, Zebra Technologies