There are so many reasons why manufacturers, 3PLs, distributors and warehouse operators need to augment their workforces with autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) right now, labor shortages aside. Yet, I’m hearing so many reasons why decision-makers are opting to “hold off for a bit,” despite their acknowledgement that automation will become what digital data and mobile technologies are today: table stakes.
Though the hesitation isn’t exclusive to those in the food and beverage industry, I’m most shocked that these companies wouldn’t be doing everything they can right now to switch into warp speed mode – or at least have the option to when needed. Fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sales are still increasing amid inflation, especially in food and beverage categories. The strength of the market even in challenging economic conditions just proves that when consumers start really spending again, manufacturers are going to have an opportunity to really reset revenue streams. They’re also going to be at risk of falling short of consumer, B2B customer, employee, and investor expectations.
1. Labor shortages actually become a problem. That’s right, they are not an inherent problem despite what fear-mongering headlines might have you thinking. The only reason labor shortages seem like a problem is because nothing is being done to augment the workers who are available and showing up. Hiring more workers isn’t the answer, or at least not the only answer. You could be fully staffed, and fully stocked, and still fall short of demand.
People have physical limits. They can only be in one place at a time, move so fast, and lift so much. If they’re repeatedly pushed to the physical and mental limits, they’re going to either burn out and slow down or burn out and quit. Then you’re going to have to find other willing workers, which becomes harder as rumors about working conditions swirl online and among friends and family, all while convincing your current workers not to leave. Plus, the average time to get a new warehouse worker to full productivity is around 4.7 weeks right now, according to decision-makers who participated in Zebra’s latest Global Warehousing Vision Study…at least the old school way.
(Those who have AMRs in their facilities know new workers can be fully productive on day one thanks to the personal, step-by-step guidance AMRs can provide. They can also make manufacturing and warehousing jobs accessible to people of all abilities, not just those with the best sight, stamina, or strength.)
2. Direct-to-consumer (D2C) channels get clogged, and complaints can multiply quickly (and publicly). If you fail to deliver an accurate order to a distributor, grocer or other B2B customer accurately, on time, in full, there will no doubt be consequences. But they will seem mild compared to what happens when you fail to deliver an accurate D2C order on time, in full. If you mess up one time with a D2C order, you could be flooded with angry customers and cancelled orders or accounts. Word of a bad experience spreads like wildfire. There is no level of tolerance, understanding or discretion like you might enjoy with B2B customers (distributors, grocers, retailers, etc.) who have been with you for years or want to build a lasting relationship. That’s the wrath of social media. I know you may not see social media as a threat, but it could be. Your brand reputation bleeds over from the consumer world to the business world because, let’s face it, business decision-makers are consumers (and social media content consumers) too. Plus, if a consumer has a bad experience with your brand, they’re not going to buy your products again – either direct or from a retail store shelf. That business (and revenue) is lost forever.
3. Operational costs continue to rise. Until you augment workers with automation technologies such as AMRs, it will remain difficult to process, produce, or move more inventory than you do today (or did a year ago). You will be stuck in this perpetual cycle of making hard decisions and incurring high penalties. Tired workers = slower task completion, especially when everything is still manually handled. Internal slowdowns transpire as delayed orders, and exhaustion to oversights and errors. At the same time, relying on people to conduct inventory counts is both wasteful in a tight labor market and rife with risk – of inaccuracies, delays, and other consequential issues. In turn, sourcing mistakes are made, leading to shortages or overages – both of which are costly – and you now have to scramble to either find more materials or find room for excess inventory. Even the most financially solvent companies don’t want to have to explain why they’re burning through money over mistakes that are preventable, especially when that preventative measure is a small monthly opex allocation to a flexible robot-as-a-service (RaaS) solution that can be easily scaled at any time as needs change.
That’s why I’m always fast to chime in and make the case for AMRs when I hear someone object to their urgency, value or necessity in food and beverage manufacturing, distribution or warehousing operations. It’s important to set the record straight, as most objections are either the result of misinformation, a lack of information, or perception about the state of the world and the issues mounting up in food and beverage supply chains. Here’s an example of what I mean:
Objection: I don’t have a lot of people to manage technology.
That’s why you need to be looking at flexible automation solutions like AMRs offered as a RaaS subscription. These highly secure, easily configurable cloud-based robots can be remotely managed. They can also be monitored and managed by third-party solution providers as needed, which completely takes the burden off your team to manage yet another technology platform. Technically, once you have the robots configured and operational – which can happen in a matter of days or hours, depending on your use case – you don’t need anyone on your team to do anything with the robots. They’re built to be self-sufficient. If you ever want to check in, just login to the dashboard to see how each AMR is performing. That same dashboard is the starting point for reconfiguring or reassigning the AMRs to support new tasks across your food and beverage operation, whether it’s moving more items, working in a different zone, or shifting from the plant to the warehouse for material movements as labor and order levels fluctuate.
Objection: I don’t have time to research AMRs, much less pilot them.
I read a quote once that really resonated with me:
“Success is not obtained overnight. It comes in installments; you get a little bit today, a little bit tomorrow until the whole package is given out. The day you procrastinate, you lose that day's success.”
― Israelmore Ayivor
When someone tells me they don’t have time to look into AMRs as a solution for a well-known labor or workflow problem, especially someone who is responsible for keeping supply chain operations on track, I remind them of the alternative: watching workers waste time transporting individual items, bins, carts, and pallets back and forth – and waste their skillsets, knowledge, and value on jobs that robots are better suited to do. You wouldn’t ask a pilot to fill in for a flight attendant when there’s a pilot shortage. You would make sure every available pilot was in a cockpit so that you don’t have to ground planes (and lose millions of dollars of potential revenue). So, why would you not spend some time on research that will ultimately help protect your bottom line and likely improve it? You want better margins, right? Or to at least maintain the ones you have now?
The moment you put AMRs to work moving materials, bins, carts or pallets, you are injecting money straight back into your operation. Workflows will become consistent, while processes will become steady, and people can become more available to do everything else that’s required to keep your food and beverage manufacturing, processing or distribution operation running smoothly, even in surge periods. And it’s all because you’re enlisting reliable, dynamic mobile robots to do jobs that can be tough, tiring and downright impossible for people.
The AMRs will show up where you need them, on time, every time. They will come to you, or go wherever you need, on demand. And they will even step in to help new workers get the lay of the land. Better yet, they will help make your most seasoned, highly skilled workers even stronger performers. They will give them time back in their days – time that can be used to receive, process, produce, pick, pack, and ship more orders.
Objection: I don’t have any capital to infuse into my business right now.
Cool. You don’t need capital for AMRs. This is an opex expense that can be managed month-to-month.
Objection: I don’t want people to leave because they think they’re being replaced by robots.
People aren’t leaving because you’re rolling out AMRs or other automation solutions. They’re leaving because you aren’t. Workers are tired. They don’t want to carry the load by themselves anymore. They don’t want to walk miles on end, at least not like this. Nor do they want to constantly have to stop and restart what they’re doing.
In fact, three-quarters of manufacturing workers assigned to warehouse operations highly agree AMRs would make their jobs less stressful. Just as many believe that if their employers do not invest in technology to improve warehouse operations, at a minimum, they will not meet our business objectives.
You have to remember: when you don’t automate certain parts of your operation – specifically those in which people are currently being asked to walk, lift, or carry a lot for long distances – then, you run the risk that people will run out of time and energy to meet demand.
Flexible automation solutions like AMRs are the best way to prevent dock-to-stock and fulfillment operations from becoming sluggish as overworked teams become worn out, mainly because they prevent exhaustion. Among all global warehouse associates currently using AMRs, over eight in 10 say the benefits are increased productivity and reduced walking/travel time.
Flexible automation essentially splits one person’s role into two parts: AMRs handle the material movements, inventory counts and other things that don’t require human faculty and people handle all the important tasks, such as actually unloading, producing, processing, picking, packing or loading inventory. The labor “force” multiplies without adding headcount, giving people the superpowers they need to be front-line heroes to billions of food and beverage consumers who rely on your company to deliver accurate orders on time, in full. Better yet, as those superpowers need to change – or people want to grow in their roles to make an even bigger impact – AMRs can help backfill or facilitate their development.
Don’t believe me? Well, maybe you’ll believe those who have experienced the benefits firsthand. Two-thirds of global warehouse associates credit AMRs with enabling advancement to new roles or opportunities, according to feedback received during the Warehousing Vision Study, which was conducted within the last year.
Objection: Things have already started moving faster since I digitalized my operation. I’m good for now. I don’t want to do anything that could disrupt the day-to-day flow.
If you see digitalization as the finish line, you set yourself up for a slow decline (and permanent end to business). The digitization of data is just the first step to creating a more resilient, future-ready operation. Digitalization of workflows is next. Once you’ve laid this groundwork then it becomes easier to automate as part of a multi-year, incremental improvement strategy.
Now, that doesn’t mean that automating one part of your business will take years. AMRs can be rolled out in hours. You can have multiple workflows automated in days. That’s actually the beauty of AMRs. It’s one of the fastest ways to drive business process improvements and respond to workers’ calls for relief. You won’t be bogged down with complex, waterfall, resource-intensive modernization projects. You can constantly refine and scale automated workflows for years on end using the same solution. So, when you are shorthanded, you can put more AMRs in the field to help fill in or help onboard new workers after hiring sprees. When you start to see a specific team struggling to keep up, or more orders coming in or more trash needing to be taken out, you can reassign AMRs or put more units on the floor temporarily. You could also restructure teams and processes permanently to better align people’s capabilities with business needs and bring in robots to take on the tasks that would prove disruptive if people had to do them – like material, WIP or inventory movements.
Objection: My organization is not comfortable integrating new technology and automation solutions today into our operations and technology infrastructure.
That’s what consultants are for. No one expects you to have domain expertise in robotics automation, even if you have been managing highly automated production or processing lines for decades. AMRs, though robots, are not the same as robot arms or automated guided vehicles (AGVs) or any other robotics automation technology out there. Plus, you’re a food and beverage expert who uses technology as a tool, not the one who develops technology tools for food and beverage manufacturing, warehousing or distribution. The key to being a successful leader is knowing when to lean on others. Find an advisor (like Zebra) who has a well-defined discovery, solution design, deployment and support process in place. Even though AMRs can be deployed in a single day, there is a little upfront legwork required to ensure that deployment delivers the immediate benefits you need. AMRs are versatile, but they still need to be configured to support a specific application and integrate seamlessly with human-involved workflows.
Objection: I have automated my food and beverage production and processing lines already. What more am I supposed to automate?
Is there really a workflow that shouldn’t be automated somehow? I don’t think so. I could write a book on what you should automate from the first mile through the last, though my colleagues have written plenty of articles and blog posts on this topic, with details on how to automate everything from manufacturing and packaging quality checks to CPG forecasting, demand planning and sourcing decisions. So, I’ll point you in their direction:
In my opinion, you should at least be using a flexible automation solution such as AMRs for every task that would traditionally require people to walk, push, pull or carry something from one aisle, station, or line to the next. Walking may be good for people, but it’s not a good use of time for business. (At least not manufacturing, distribution, 3PL or warehousing businesses.)
Objection: Robots aren’t people.
You’re right, they aren’t. But they can make people faster, smarter, stronger, safer, more productive, more efficient, more accurate and more committed (among other things we all wish they – or we – could be). Robots augment workers. They don’t replace them. People will always be at the heart of your business. But there will come a time when you need more people, and they may not always be available. So, you have a choice: hope the people you do have can work a miracle, or let them marvel at your decision to ease their workloads by bringing in robots that can give them some relief.
Objection: I heard cloud solutions were hard to set up, manage, secure (etc., etc.).
AMRs are intentionally managed in the cloud so that you can keep your operation grounded and stable as circumstances change relative to labor, lead times, order volumes, etc. I don’t need to go through the full list. You know the factors that impact your business better than me. The point is that you need to be able to remotely login, move some robots around (just like you would people) and then get on with your day. Or you need to be able to hand the reigns over to other people who may not be onsite. With a cloud-based robotics automation platform like AMRs, you can all, collaboratively, maintain full control over your operation and keep everyone’s favorite food and beverages moving into the market.
Doing things the way you’ve always done them won’t lead to improvement, and you’re going to need to continuously improve operations. With AMRs, you can make your operation look larger as demand intensifies. So, don’t see your flexible automation implementation as something you’ll get to when you can. Make it a priority today. It’s one of the few things that you can actually do to automate operations and augment workers in a day or two, without breaking the bank or having to re-engineer processes or retrain workers.