It is quite often heard that ‘robots are taking jobs’ or ‘they are not safe to work with humans’! But, as the need for automation is growing across supply chains in all the industries, including apparels and textiles, there are some myths growing as well which are being associated with the use of mobile robots, their feasibility and safety within factories – warehouses in particular.
Debunking these myths is necessary at a time when increasing interest in automation due to shrinking labour pools combined with rising wages, rising purchase volume through e-commerce channels and consumers’ growing service expectations from the companies they shop with tends to open whole new technology-driven horizons for the apparel brands and manufacturers. And, if not dispelled, these myths may derail the industry’s efforts towards consolidating their warehouse operations using mobile robots.
Before discussing the myths and dispelling them, an understanding should be given about mobile robot safety. An easy way to look at mobile robot safety is to consider a 3-part spectrum from least to most safe…
The first part on the spectrum is industrial automation. These are large, powerful robots that are traditionally used in heavy load production like automotive manufacturing. Industrial robots, like industrial arms, need large amounts of cordoned-off space to operate and are completely unsuitable for collaborative work with safety of workers being the main issue. While these robots have their place in industry, companies have continued to pursue newer technologies to automate more complicated tasks.
The next part is Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs). These robots were built to move loads around an industrial setting by following predetermined paths, which can be marked using magnetic bars or tape, coloured tape, rails or QR codes adhered to the floor. Using basic sensor technology, most AGVs are able to detect obstacles and will simply stop if an object is detected. While less dangerous than industrial arms, AGVs still can’t be considered collaborative because they don’t support the natural behaviour of humans around them and are unable to work most efficiently in collaborative situations.
The final part is Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). As time has progressed, sensor technology has developed significantly, allowing robots to detect, identify and predict the movement of objects around them. But what does that mean for collaborative work and safety? It essentially means that AMRs are designed to work efficiently in highly dynamic environments where people, machines and other vehicles are behaving as they naturally would. In fact, AMRs can be equipped with multiple sensors, such as 2D and 3D cameras, LiDAR scanners, Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs) and more. Combined, these sensors ensure that humans are able to operate around the robots with 100 per cent confidence in their safety.
Now let’s debunk the myths around AMRs with Jonathan Chang, Overseas Marketing Director, ForwardX Robotics, China, a leading AMR provider to manufacturing industry along with a number of apparel companies across continents worldwide including Asia and North America.
Myth 1: Mobile robotic platforms are not safe to work with!
Truth: The emergence of AMRs certainly allows people to work safely within a shared warehouse environment. Navigating around an apparel warehouse or manufacturing area means avoiding a variety of obstacles in-time and doing so in a safe way. Traditional AGV safety standards (ANSI B56.5) are not applicable to AMR technology. So here risk and safety are assessed keeping human safety on priority.
To illustrate this point, Jonathan shares an example of how picking is completed with an AGV vs. an AMR below –
- AMR-based picking– Orders are dispatched as picking tasks to order pickers and robots. After receiving the tasks, the AMR begins its autonomous journey to the pick location navigating through the aisles and around the objects it encounters. While this is happening, a human order picker receives the tasks and moves to the pick location. At the pick location, the order picker follows on-screen instructions to locate, pick, verify and stow the good on the AMR. Once completed, the AMR continues to complete its tasks by moving to the next pick location and so does the human order picker. How collaborative and safe does this sound?
- AGV-based picking– A large area is cordoned-off as a no-entry zone where the robots will operate. This area contains multiple custom-built shelves packed densely together. Around the outside of the no-entry zone, you will find pick stations with human order pickers awaiting tasks. In this scenario, orders are dispatched and robots tunnel underneath the shelves following QR codes on the floor until they locate the correct shelf. Once located, the AMR must find its way out of the densely populated area and move to the pick stations. At the pick station, the AMR waits in a queue before it gets to the order picker, where goods are picked, and the AMR moves to another pick station or returns the shelf to its original position. Once again, how collaborative and safe does this sound?
So, how companies are assessing risk and safety for their AMRs in apparel warehouses and what are the criteria?
“We assess environments based on the prerequisites that are required for optimal operation of our AMRs. This means we take into account multiple factors, from static environmental factors in an apparel warehouse like aisle width and ground surface to dynamic factors like the number of humans and other vehicles that are operating in the same area. For each project, we conduct risk assessment guides that evaluate all use cases and identify any residual risks,” shared Jonathan.
Myth 2: Mobile robotics automation is only for high-volume operations and is expensive, complex and hard to support without extensive training!
Truth: Any operations with repetitive tasks can benefit from the fast deployment and flexibility of an AMR system regardless of size. Large-scale apparel companies can further increase warehouse efficiencies and be more flexible and agile. Small-scale companies can punch above their weight and be more efficient to compete with larger companies.
In fact, AMRs are a low-risk investment and can be integrated and operational within an apparel warehouse or factory in less time with less investment. Average traditional warehouse automation starts at more than US $ 500,000, while an average collaborative robot starts at US $ 35,000, a data that’s released by Fetch Robotics, USA.
According to Jonathan, of all automation solutions for material handling tasks, he believes AMRs to be the easiest and most cost-effective solution to implement. This is mainly because of 3 reasons:
Infrastructure-free – AMR solutions are designed to work within the current environment without any large, expensive changes or infrastructure. This means that brownfield sites do not need to completely tear up the floor of their facilities to see real improvements in the productivity, efficiency and costs.
Quickest deployment – ForwardX has been able to deploy AMRs within 6 weeks without cordoning off areas in the apparel facility. This means the facility can continue to operate while the company is implementing its solution. Large-scale automation like ASRS, conveyors, etc., requires huge investment and can take over 2-3 years to complete. Even for newer solutions like QR-code-following AGVs, the apparel companies have to wait for least 3-6 months for a deployment. This is an impossible ask for small-scale operations.
Most cost-effective – In most cases, AMRs offer the quickest payback periods and require the smallest investment. With ForwardX, the company delivers payback in under 2 years and, in some cases, as quickly as 12 months.
Myth 3: The technology for mobile robots is not mature enough to perform well in the warehouses!
Truth: Specific technology advancements have progressed far enough for commercial operations. AMRs have the ability to re-plan the processes within a warehouse and are built with safety features to operate around humans and within high-traffic facilities.
For example, a leading AMR provider ForwardX has developed mobile robotics platform, consisting of hardware (the robots themselves) and software (fleet management), which can be used to automate labour-intensive tasks like order picking, packing and sorting within a warehouse, as well as tasks like raw material delivery, work-in-progress movement and finished goods storage in a production environment, all efficiently.
“We have developed AMRs that are used to automate material handling tasks in industrial environments. We currently work with a number of apparel companies in a number of continents worldwide, including Asia and North America, to automate their warehousing operations and have seen a lot of success with our solutions for the apparel industry. We are also in talks with companies in European countries, like the UK and Germany, and South Asian countries like India,” informed Jonathan to Apparel Resources.
Myth 4: Robots are taking jobs!
Truth: This is a common objection that people have about robotics. This is debatable but, in most cases, the robots create new jobs and more opportunities to allow people to do more with less. According to IFR (International Federation of Robotics), the robotics industry generates approximately 170,000 to 190,000 jobs worldwide each year and apparel industry is gradually pacing up with this data.
The truth is that AMRs are designed to empower humans to be more productive and efficient. By taking on the dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks within a warehouse or factory, AMRs ensure that humans can operate safely, efficiently, and with more enjoyment in their work. AMRs also allow for companies to redistribute their workforce to take on challenges that are more important to their operations.