Want to Keep Things Moving in Your Factory, Warehouse or Distribution Center? Experts Say You May Want to Equip Workers with Wearables and Pair Them with Autonomous Mobile Robots
This low-risk approach to automation will both simplify and speed up material movements.
If we told you there was a way to decrease manual material handling by up to 50% – and that it could be in place in a matter of weeks – would you be interested in learning more? We’re assuming you would consider how expensive labor has become, along with everything else. We’re sure you don’t want to pay for any more delays in manufacturing, fulfillment, and/or restocks or absorb the cost of replacing items that are mishandled/damaged in transit by people who are either moving too fast or trying to move too much at once.
So, let’s talk to two seasoned supply chain problem solvers about what you can do right now to automate material movements (and simultaneously improve labor utilization, workflow efficiency, and material availability).
Eric Harty, Senior Director, Strategic Initiatives, Robotics Automation, Zebra
Alex Evans, Vice President of Product Management, Ivanti Wavelink
Your Edge Blog Team: Manufacturers, warehouse operators, logistics providers and distributors have a lot on their plates these days – or should we say, “their pallets.” At the same time, they have fewer people to get things unloaded, put away, moved to manufacturing lines, etc. What’s the simplest way to ensure production, fulfillment or returns aren’t held up due to items piling up in staging or storage areas?
Alex: Bottlenecks at staging or storage areas can create a nightmare scenario for operations, where you have the goods in house but aren’t delivering on-time because of internal logjams. In the past, shippers may have employed a “runner” or assigned a team member to simply help “dig out” this backlog. Now, rather than re-assigning workers from other tasks, automation – and particularly autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) provide a big collaborative value and help eliminate this kind of nightmare scenario.
Eric: You’ve highlighted a major pain point with many of our customers today. Some of our customers have resorted to using overtime to complete daily operations such as put away, since there is simply not enough labor to get it done during the regular shift. This of course increases operating costs while also increasing the current workload of your people. By automating workflows such as put away, you significantly decrease your dock-to-stock cycle time, which then streamlines the entire end-to-end product flow throughout a facility.
In manufacturing environments, some customers are so short-handed that they’ve tasked highly skilled technicians or engineers to manually move product from station to station. By automating lineside delivery, production technicians can spend their valuable time on assembling product instead of moving parts around the facility. That is a task best suited for AMRs.
Your Edge Blog Team: Why AMRs specifically?
Eric: There are several advantages to leveraging AMRs for material transport. When compared to a traditional fixed conveyor, AMRs do not require as much valuable floor space and are more flexible. If your workflow needs to change, a mobile robot is not anchored to the floor and does not require re-engineering your floor plan – you can simply drag and drop a new preferred path in the robot management software, and the AMR will adapt accordingly.
A conveyor is often unidirectional, so your material must always travel in one direction. If a stop is missed or item not diverted at the right junction, it’s possible that item needs to go through the entire loop again, which could be hundreds or even thousands of feet. We’ve heard customers mention that products can be “trapped” in a conveyor loop for days without being noticed, which severely impacts service level agreements (SLAs) as well as customer satisfaction. Because AMRs are omni-directional and can autonomously travel from point to point without a fixed path, they can bypass all the extra stops along a traditional conveyor route and move directly to their next destination. This allows product to move more flexibly and efficiently throughout the facility and eliminates standard bottlenecks in fixed automation.
AMRs are also designed to be collaborative with human associates. AMRs typically do not operate behind a fence or inside a cage – they are designed to operate in dynamic environments alongside people and forklifts, so they open up the possibilities for greater efficiency through the optimization of both robots and equipped workers.
Alex: That’s a great point. AMRs uniquely work because they augment the human worker’s ability to accomplish more each shift. Workers are empowered to assign material movement from, let’s say, the wearable device they’re already carrying, and delegate to the AMR “this tote is ready to be brought to the staging area.” The AMR is already plugged into the workflow, can recognize where the assigned tote is, and where it needs to go, and can confirm back to the human worker as well as the host application once that tote has been delivered to staging. Meanwhile, the human worker has already been actively working on another task, so multiple workflows advance simultaneously.
Your Edge Blog Team: You mentioned it would be smart to give workers coordinating the material movements with wearable mobile computers like the Zebra WS50. Why is that?
Alex: There are a number of reasons. Wearables have a big advantage simply because a device like the Zebra WS50 gives the worker both hands to be able to accomplish tasks, which greatly improves efficiency. Also, when you consider each step in a task workflow independently, there isn’t often a need for much on-screen content. A couple of intuitive icons on the WS50 screen makes task navigation straightforward, while enabling the exchange of workflow information to and from the host application. And whether for the steps a task worker is completing, or those being handed off to an AMR, there is the option to voice-enable the application on the WS50 so the worker can verbally interact throughout the workflow.
Eric: I agree. For collaborative, multi-bot operations including put away or pick-to-tote workflows, a wearable such as the WS50 becomes a powerful, multi-purpose device when integrated with software from Ivanti, for example. The associate can be directed by the wearable, perform data capture functions on it, and trigger AMR tasks in real time directly with the device. This essentially enables what we refer to as “on-demand” automation – mobile robots will execute material transport workflows when and where an associate needs it.
Your Edge Blog Team: Tell us a bit more about the software Ivanti developed for the WS50 and how it was tailored for collaborative material movements between workers and AMRs.
Alex: It starts with our Velocity platform, which many are familiar with as “Zebra’s All-Touch TE.” Velocity’s app modernization capabilities tailor screens from the host application to be optimized for the WS50, providing simple task instructions, item images, tap-and-swipe icons – the types of user experience enhancements that make enterprise apps easy to learn and intuitive to navigate. Next, if you couple Velocity with Ivanti Neurons for IIoT, you’re also able to connect into the FetchCore software. This integration starts gathering data from the AMR and merges it with workflow info from the host enterprise systems – whether telnet or web-based, barcoded or NFC-collected data, etc. All of this helps assimilate the Fetch robots into task workflows alongside the human worker. It’s as easy to integrate as you wish, with the ability to customize to the level that maximizes value to your business.
Eric: I also want to point out is that the FetchCore cloud software is not just a robot and workflow management tool. It is also a platform for our partners and customers to build innovative solutions like Ivanti has done with Velocity. We’re excited to see Ivanti’s development and integration of multiple products from the Zebra portfolio, including the WS50 and Zebra AMRs, into a powerful automation solution that is truly collaborative and leverages data from all levels of the operation to provide greater optimization and insights.
If you’re interested to see Ivanti Velocity, Zebra WS50, and Zebra AMRs work together in person, please stop by booth #S647 at ProMat 2023 in Chicago, from March 20 – 23.
Your Edge Blog Team: How long does it typically take to get the Fetch robot + Zebra WS50 + Ivanti Wavelink software solution online in a factory, warehouse, or DC?
Alex: Good question, and this answer will vary depending on how many workflows you want to incorporate and other considerations. However, the integration with the Ivanti Velocity platform, Zebra’s WS50, and the Fetch robots is quite easy. Setting up basic commands to trigger the AMR to transport material via a barcode scan or NFC tap can be completed in a matter of hours. That said, you’re likely to implement a more robust integration with app modernization for the WS50, some scripting, tailoring of the data collection on the Ivanti Neurons IIoT server, and you’re looking at a couple of days per workflow. Putting a number around it, as a guide, a good series of common workflows can be up and running in less than 30 days.
Eric: I agree with Alex – from the Zebra AMR solution perspective, we can work immediately out of the box in a matter of days and can integrate as needed as your automation operations evolve. As Alex mentioned, we offer built-in integration tools with our FetchCore software to enable robot triggers in various methods. WMS/WES/MES integration is not a requirement, but that is always something we can do down the line.
Another exciting aspect about using AMRs, is that you are not limited to one workflow. For example, we have a distribution customer who uses the same robots to automate three different workflows within the same facility – put away, AS/RS to packout, and recycling removal. All workflows run simultaneously, meaning they interleave with each other depending on the need.
Your Edge Blog Team: How long do you think it will be before every company automates material movements?
Alex: Considering what we’ve all experienced with supply chain crunches and labor shortages through the last two years, what was already an emerging area before is now rapidly accelerating. From a market competition standpoint, those who are adopting early will have some first-mover advantages, and that will compel their industry peers to play catch up. From an operational excellence perspective, the time savings will really boost KPIs, and this is already something businesses are focused on – especially as operational expenses are being scrutinized. Several customer operations have started their transformations in various mechanized forms of automation. Those who did not are looking at options. Disruption of their existing operations by a disruptive and significant change is risky and costly. Here, this cost-effective proposition doubled with a no risk integration is a way to accelerate the automation of material movements in record times.
Eric: We have heard from many customers that labor availability is a driving factor in deciding to automate. Post-pandemic hourly labor is in high demand. Most customers face challenges in finding labor to move materials. In Zebra’s latest Warehousing Vision Study, we saw that 71% of decision-makers are accelerating the timelines of their modernization projects or plan to within a year. In addition, 83% of associates report increased productivity as a top benefit of working with AMRs, and we expect adoption rates to increase as these trends continue.
Your Edge Blog Team: So, no one should be worried that automating material movements in a robot-assisted, yet human-centric manner would be “too heavy of a lift” to even attempt, right?
Eric: That’s right. Today’s modern, flexible, cloud-based AMR solutions make it much easier to setup and deploy robots into various warehouse and manufacturing environments because there is no additional infrastructure needed and no major changes to your facility layout required. AMRs adapt to work in and around your existing floorplan because they can autonomously navigate around people and equipment. We’ve seen some customers deploy AMRs in as little as three days, and immediately start realizing benefits such as increased daily throughput and reclaiming valuable floor space by replacing fixed conveyance with AMRs. And what’s really great is there can be a compounding effect with automating manual material transport – existing labor can now be focused on higher-value tasks, while at the same time productivity can be improved in workflows such as put away, lineside delivery, picking, and shipping lane delivery.
Alex: One hundred percent. Today’s workers have connectivity and visibility through the rugged mobile device, wearables, and/or vehicle computers to keep operations moving. However, when you consider the amount of time it takes to transport materials across a distribution center, it’s a task that takes more than its share of workflow time for the value it adds. Augmenting the worker with collaborative AMRs that take on that time-consuming step in a task workflow is easily done now, and without disruption to the enterprise systems – the WMS or ERP, for example, that businesses already have in place.
Your Edge Blog Team: So, if a customer is still running their operations on an AS400 in Telnet mode or SAP ITSmobile on a Unix system in Web mode or on any “old-fashioned” WMS system, we can still deploy Velocity/Neurons for IIoT+WS50+Fetch Robots?
Alex: Yes, definitely. This solution is augmenting the existing operation. It does not require a modification of the WMS and ERP. The solution enables a fast and zero-risk adoption of Zebra’s Fetch robots.
To learn more about the integrated Zebra-Ivanti solution or to learn more about how Fetch robots can be used for material movement in your environment, watch the below video and visit this webpage.
Want Our Bi-Weekly Blog Roundup?
Subscribe to Zebra's Blog
Prefer Real-Time Notifications?
Get the RSS feeds
Search the Blog
Are You a Zebra Developer?
Find more technical discussions on our Developer Portal blog.
Reflexis is Now Part of Zebra Technologies
Visit the Reflexis blog for more retail, hospitality and banking-related insights.
Fetch Robotics is Now Part of Zebra Technologies
Visit the Fetch blog for robotics-related insights.
Looking for more expert insights?
Visit the Zebra Story Hub for more interviews, news, and industry trend analysis.