As Interest in Robotics Automation Grows, This Team is Helping Supply Chain Companies Turn “Interest” into “Action” – and Achieve Better Business Outcomes
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can make people more productive, which is exactly what manufacturers, warehouse operators, distributors need right now if they want to fulfill customers’ needs.
In just 24 months, Zebra’s Robotics Automation business has made significant investments in the fast-growing market for collaborative automation in manufacturing and warehousing. Acquisitions like Fetch Robotics and investments in Fox Robotics, Plus One Robotics and RightHand Robotics through Zebra Ventures have brought together the world’s most technologically advanced robots with Zebra’s software. The result? Innovative solutions that help our customers overcome real-world challenges.
Led by Jim Lawton, who has more than a decade of experience in bringing robotics solutions to market to address business needs in manufacturing, distribution and the supply chain, we’ve built an expansive research and development (R&D) effort. We have also grown our Robotics Automation leadership team to include market futurists, technologists and solution strategists like Eric Harty and Matt Wicks.
We know that, without the help of robots, humans aren’t going to be able to keep up with global commerce demands. With Zebra’s help, supply chain companies (like yours) will do more than keep up – you’ll strengthen agility and performance in even the most transitory times. People simply can’t move goods – raw materials or finished products – from point A to point B fast enough. There are just too many goods to move and too few people to move them. But we don’t have to tell you that. Getting inbound goods unloaded, inventoried, sorted and then forwarded to the next stop in a timely manner is hard. You’ve experienced the consequences of not completing that delivery on time, whether to a manufacturing work cell or customer door.
So, Jim and his team have made it their mission to deliver robotics solutions that help you avoid such consequences in the future. Keep reading for the latest on Zebra’s investments, innovation and impact in the robotics automation space:
Your Edge Blog Team: Our customers have experienced a lot of change since we expanded into robotics automation, and it’s a safe bet that there’s more change ahead. What are some of the challenges you and your team see coming on fast and how are we helping customers address them?
Jim: From my perspective, one of the biggest takeaways from the past two years is that change is persistent, unpredictable and far-reaching. The state of flux that every aspect of business faces – whether it is labor availability, material shortages or unexpected disruption – has transformed the definition of operational excellence forever. Agility and flexibility are now the watchwords in the industry, and modern automation is key to building those abilities. Take for example, the U.S. move to provide meaningful incentives to re-shoring manufacturing. In theory, a fine idea – manufacturing jobs provide sound economic benefit to the communities where the operations are located and, certainly, supply chains closer to home are likely to be more stable. But we’ve all seen the numbers – job turnover rates in manufacturing were over 40% in 2021, and the next generation of workers are not interested in working in the field. Robotics automation helps break that deadlock in two ways. First, robots relieve people from work they do not want to do – and are not built to do. Second, as we learned through the latest Zebra Warehousing Vision Study, 83% of associates shared that that they are more likely to work for an employer that gives them modern devices to use for tasks.
Your Edge Blog Team: The narrative that we’re getting closer to “lights out” operations in warehousing and manufacturing with robotics automation remains strong. But it seems like pairing AMRs with human workers for material movement, picking and other key actions is one of the best ways to keep manufacturing, warehousing, distribution and logistics operations on track today. Would you agree?
Jim: For years, there has been a lot of noise around the replacement of people by robots in many sectors and it is coming faster than we might think. The reality is that it is just noise. Robotic technology is simply not at a point where machines can replace people completely. What robots can do is eliminate the need for people to waste their time running back and forth, reduce the burden of tasks that require repetitive – and sometimes harmful – motion and allow people to focus on what they do best: using their dexterity and grasping, solving problems, identifying opportunities for innovation and ensuring that work is done well. The model we see that works best is the one that combines machines with human talent to improve productivity, efficiency and quality.
Your Edge Blog Team: We know customers are considering AMRs for many different roles within their organizations. Is there a particular application that is consistently impactful for customers based on past deployments? An ideal starting point for AMR utilization, if you will?
Jim: The fastest path to getting a return on investment (ROI) 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.
Your Edge Blog Team: Do you envision customers combining Zebra’s robotics automation technologies with vision and imaging and software automation platforms in a more significant way in the coming months?
Jim: As automation moves into the mainstream, customers recognize 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 we create to help them meet their challenges must embrace the reality of the environment – that there are many steps in any process, with many devices involved.
Our focus is on solutions that orchestrate and coordinate all those devices and activities to work together to smooth and speed the process. Here is one example: an associate using a Zebra wearable device receives information regarding an inbound order. Using their mobile handheld computer (or maybe their wearable, if using the Zebra WS50), they meet up with a Zebra 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, one customer – Bespoke Manufacturing Company (BMC), which produces custom, on- demand fashion and textile items and reduces fashion waste by 99% – uses Zebra fixed industrial scanners and AMRs to manage the delivery of raw materials needed to complete an order to the production line. Zebra’s 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.
Your Edge Blog Team: As software continues to be the primary driver of customer value in robotics automation solutions, how is Zebra leading the way?
Jim: Ultimately, the optimization of any workflow and the value that comes from that effort comes down to making key decisions in a way that achieves the best operational performance. In the warehouse, questions like 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 need to be made in order for the operation to perform, as it must – requires innovative software that can analyze myriad variables and make the optimal choices. The software we’ve developed acts as the brain that makes the brawn – the hardware of the robot – perform the workflow optimally.
Your Edge Blog Team: The solutions market for robotics automation is fragmented, reflecting the complexity of the challenges our customers wrestle with every day. What’s your approach to identifying the innovation that will become part of Zebra’s robotics automation roadmap?
Jim: Our customers rely on us to help them see what is coming – and they trust us to help them navigate those changes with innovative tools and solutions. So, any opportunity to expand our capabilities and portfolio begins with listening to our customers, partners and influencers.
Here is one example. Customers need to drive improvements in productivity and throughput in the operations they have today (brownfield). Many of these environments require manual picking and robot-assisted picking. Operating – and optimizing – in these hybrid environments requires software that looks not just at the people or just the robots but supports the automated picking and the manual picking activity simultaneously.
To put it in real-world context: Say I’m headed to the beach and need some shorts, shirts and a surfboard. I hop online and place the order. The order goes to the warehouse management system (WMS) and Zebra’s software (deployed within the retailer’s system) recognizes that the order needs to be managed as two-fold:
First, the shirts and shorts can be handled with semi-automation. An associate will pick those items and place them in a bin on an AMR, which will deliver the items for packaging and shipping.
The surfboard, on the other hand, requires pure manual picking and delivery for packaging and shipping.
Both parts of the order will arrive to be packed and shipped as one delivery, and I (as the customer) will never know – or need to know – how it was done, just that I got what I needed for a great trip to the beach. Our software uniquely orchestrates and coordinates both the manual and automated aspects of the workflow – and by the way, it does it with no need for reconfiguration or renovation of the existing space or additional equipment or infrastructure, like safety cages.
In large part, our technology strategy, investments, and portfolio meet the reality that customers will need solutions that optimize both what robots do and what people do. That’s true today and will be for a long time to come. Too often, robot companies focus only on addressing what the robot needs to do and ignore the rest. Our software dynamically allocates to the most efficient modality – whether that’s robots only, people only, or a combination of both.
Your Edge Blog Team: How do the investments made in robotics innovation by Zebra Ventures fit into the overall strategy for your group?
Jim: Robotics technologies are in varying levels of maturity, and it can take years for an application to deliver industrial value. To accelerate the innovation curve, we have developed and implemented a strategy where we pilot, test, evaluate and influence the roadmap of technologies we see as addressing the most significant business challenges our customers face.
We do this both within the Zebra Robotics Automation business unit and in parallel with Zebra Ventures. That way our customers get access to solutions firmly planted in addressing today’s challenges and those best positioned to solve what is just around the corner and beyond.
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