At the ARC Industry Forum in Orlando, there was a panel focused on GE Appliances implementation of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) from Agilox. GE Appliance sought to automate the movement of materials from the dock to the production line. While ARC’s forum took place in February, the transcript of this panel has only recently become available.
The panelists were Harry Chase, Director Advanced Materials GE Appliances, a Haier Company, and Andreas Boedenauer, President North America, AGILOX. Steve Banker – Vice President, Supply Chain Management, ARC Advisory Group – moderated and added some commentary based on the market research he had done in this area.
Mr. Chase said that after testing different providers, they selected AGILOX as one of their main suppliers. Initially they were just moving some large parts from the back of the warehouse to the assembly line. “This was a kind of learning phase to see what we could and couldn’t do with mobile robots,” he said. One impetus for the AMR pilot is that the company wanted flexibility to be able to repath and remap without making too many infrastructural changes. They had implemented AMRs from Seegrid before the Agilox pilot. AMRs are more intelligent than an AGV (automated guided vehicle), but Seegrid’s bots had fixed paths and couldn’t dodge obstacles. In contrast, Mr. Chase stated, AGILOX employs a “swarming technology” that enables cloud-based robot to robot communication. Thus, if one bot encounters an obstruction on a travel path, that discovery allows the facility map used by all the robots for navigation to be updated.
Before deploying the robots, a number of tests needed to be done. There were also integration issues. Traditionally, a lot of things were done manually at the manufacturing sites, but now GE Appliances is trying to develop a digital material replenishment system. As the software integration builds out, the company’s focus is on triggering different types of replenishment tasks.
The pilot has been successful. Over the last 1.5 years, 17 different units have been deployed; and this year’s goal is to exponentially increase that to 50 to 60 units.
Mr. Chase cited three different factors that initially affected their decision to deploy AMRs: safety, visibility, and lack of manpower (not being able to attract and retain employees). The company looks for a less than two-year ROI surrounding capital investments. In their business case, the company com-pared the cost of the technology to the cost of hiring people to do the job. Other factors were also considered, such as facility damage by associates driving forklifts too quickly which resulted in costly repairs of damaged walls and guard rails.
One advantage of AMRs as a technology, is that low cost pilots can be conducted. In contrast, installing a warehouse management system (WMS) can be a nine-month, million-dollar project.
If a pilot is successful, it is also easy to scale up the number of bots at a facility. Mr. Boedenauer said that their AMRs are close to being a plug and play technology. AGILOX does this process in minutes. This is what makes pilots affordable. Mr. Boedenauer explained that the initial facility mapping is done in a simple manner with a tablet/smartphone and by driving the unit through the facility. The unit scans the environment with a laser, creating a map, and within a few minutes it’s good to go. There is no need to upload a drawing.
Mr. Banker mentioned a conversation he had with a company that deployed e-commerce robots and got “instant payback.” This is possible with robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) pricing, which priced the system based on the number of transactions done by the robots. When a robotic transaction fee is cheaper than the cost of a human to do that task, then the ROI is instantaneous.
GE Appliances, however, chose to buy the robots outright rather than leasing them. Mr. Chase said that RaaS pricing has a faster payback, but the ROI was higher for them if they purchased the system.
No technology is flawless. Although autonomous, robots still need to maintain connectivity with the plant WiFi system. If the bot is in the process of completing a run, and the WIFI goes down, the robot can complete the task. Without WIFI connectivity, the bot can not get its next task. Further, to monitor the movement of the AMRS, WiFi connectivity is necessary.
Further, Mr. Chase stated, AMRs can be “too smart.” Mr. Chase spoke about AMRs wanting to go beneath wire fencing in one section of the facility. However, through the software system, zones can be created where the bots are not allowed to enter. But, as they are highly intelligent and talking to each other, they are constantly remapping, and that is “scary.”
Robots do contribute to the need for fewer associates. However, that is partially offset by the need to deploy engineers to support the robots. However, the “engineers” do not necessarily need to have a college degree. The company has trained various associates to fix hardware and deploy applications.
Mr. Chase’s perspective is that different AMRs have different tasks they are good at. No AMR provider offers AMRs that cover the entire range of fulfillment and production tasks and payloads that it is possible for this technology to support. When robots come from the same vendor, the AMRs talk to each other; but if a company uses AMRs from different suppliers, the AMRs do not communicate with the other robots. Rather, they treat the other robot like they would a forklift or person. The company has been talking to various vendors to see if they could deploy a control system that could integrate different AMRs and achieve better process optimization. But so far there’s been no solution to this.
Mr. Banker commented that part of what differentiates some AMR suppliers is not the hardware, but the software. For ecommerce and spare parts fulfillment, the way the AMRs support humans in optimizing a process is the secret sauce. Mr. Banker believes that patent issues could prevent these types of robots from being integrated by a common robotic control system.
As a postscript, it is worth mentioning that various suppliers of AMRs are pointing to the benefits of this technology during a pandemic. With fewer associates on the floor, AMRs can make it easier for warehouses and factories to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Sharada Prahladrao is the primary author of this article.