‘Micro’ Robotic Solutions Are Headed for Mom-and-Pop Warehouses

By Matthew Cherewka, SCB Contributor

Advances in technology over the past few years have led many companies within the supply chain to explore robotics and automation, to improve efficiency in their operations. In many cases, however, these efforts tend to be giant, capital-intensive projects with fixed equipment such as large robotic arms, protective cages and long stretches of conveyors.

Operations managers at companies with medium-sized or larger facilities with tight space constraints will likely have their eyes glaze over when an automation provider or systems integrator comes to them with a proposal to overhaul their entire distribution or fulfillment center operations. In many cases, that results in continued operations that are mainly manual, and companies are still faced with continual labor shortages while struggling to meet surging customer demands.

Fortunately, technologies are coming online that can allow companies with a smaller footprint, or with workflows in tighter spaces, to reap the benefits of robotics and automation without having to write a giant check.

For example, a company that uses manual processes and vehicles such as forklifts and pallet jacks to handle the movement of pallets from the wrapper to the dock door can soon begin to deploy autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). The systems can augment existing material, with integration that can be handled quickly and without disruption to the company’s operations.

Increasingly, acquisition of such robots can be done through a robots-as-a-service (RaaS) approach, which eliminates the need for high capital expense in favor of an easier-to-manage operational expense outlay. Robot companies that use a RaaS model provide the equipment, monitor operations and provide maintenance support, which reduces the overall cost for a small or mid-sized company.

This method also provides more flexibility for companies that need additional robots to meet growing demand. An organization should be able to order more robots to be deployed during peak periods, then redeploy them in other areas, rather than having large capital-intensive robots sit idle during slow periods.

Other micro-workflow processes that can achieve quick return on investment include waste and dunnage removal, consolidating totes and pick carts to and from picking lines and packout, and parts delivery between work cells and processes in discrete manufacturing plants. Until recently, the cost of material handling automation technology only made economic sense when it replaced manual workflows, in cases where a human worker needed to walk or drive long distances within a warehouse, or when such work had significantly high throughput. But what about those shorter distances or lower utilization workflows that automation has left behind? With less affordable labor at the ready, when and how does this work get done efficiently?

Companies that are considering automation should keep an eye out for solutions to these micro-workflows that are coming online that until now were too costly for robotics and automation to work for them sensibly. With flexible systems that can be integrated into existing facilities and business models that reduce upfront costs, companies with smaller facilities or labor-intensive workflows in confined spaces will be able to begin their automation journey to address labor shortages and increasing customer demand challenges.

Matthew Cherewka is director of business development and strategy with Vecna Robotics.