Autonomous Mobile Robots on Your Team

BY Brian Loftus
12/23/2019 - HVAC Operations

Technology is the inspiration for making everything smarter and cheaper.  We see that in our mobile devices, televisions, cars, how it has transformed the way we work and the expectations of customers.  “Teammates are the most valuable asset” is especially true when the unemployment rate is at a 50 year low, but you still need to unload deliveries or fulfill orders at odd hours.  That is why we have been monitoring the smarter and cheaper evolution of Autonomous Mobile Robots or AMRs. 

Last month, we attended the Autonomous Mobile Robot Conference sponsored by the Robotic Industries Association.  In response to our inquiries, several leading manufacturers told us one of these devices could be deployed for less than $3K per month.  Another attendee, a major consumer of these tools, told me he expects to see new entrants and lower price points at this conference next year.  Based on the number of component suppliers at the event, that appears to be a logical outlook.

An AMR is not C3PO.  Every AMR video I have seen features the overgrown Roomba deftly navigating an active facility like an experienced waiter balancing a tray loaded with drinks.  Participants at the event emphasized AMRs can reliably perform specific tasks, so careful planning is crucial.  This exercise also allows you to evaluate the abilities of your vendor partner and to set reasonable expectations.  Much of the event featured guidance on how to effectively evaluate and deploy the tools.

Tell your AMR supplier your needs and objectives, so you can right-size the tool and set reasonable expectations.  What are the loads to be transported and your unique warehouse map?  Do you want to be able to fulfill an order within 15 or 30 minutes, and how far does it need to travel when assisting with unloading deliveries?  Are your floors smooth or are there ramps and bumps?  AMRs are data machines.  Your existing wifi networks will likely need additional bandwidth for continued effective functionality. 

The panel discussion of early adopters was especially informative.  They unanimously agreed these tools will not be perfect at first.  One participant said, “like any tool, the benefits and usefulness improve with time and experience.  There is a learning curve and it can take several months to achieve expectations.”  Another panelist provided these cautious words of experience: “We were our own worst enemy with the deployment.  It needs a careful study prior to deploy.  Careful analysis of processes, and how processes will change after you deploy.”  Your entire team needs to be involved for effective integration into your processes. 

We assembled a long list of tips for the effective evaluation and integration of these tools.  We connected with several of the leading providers who welcomed the opportunity for follow-up discussions with us.  Those discussions will be most productive with member support.  Please let me know if you are intrigued with deploying these tools and would like to assist with these discussions.  Afterwards, we will compile a complete list of the tips and discussion notes.  We hope to make that available to members later this quarter.