Analyst Insight: The hype around autonomous mobile robots has reached a fever pitch. While widespread adoption of AMRs is still five to 10 years away, the potential benefits they bring in terms of flexible and scalable automation make it imperative for companies to begin exploring their potential applications and limitations now. Being an early adopter always carries risks, but lessons from pilot projects can help companies get ahead of the curve and gain a competitive advantage with the right approach and expectations.
As with all new technologies, AMR adoption carries risks and rewards for companies on the cutting edge. The reality is that many of the technologies enabling AMRs aren’t far removed from university research labs. Companies in the AMR space began by developing the technology and then looking for ways to apply it commercially, rather than in response to real-world distribution challenges. As a result, AMRs that seem to perform well on the tradeshow floor or in the R&D lab can experience challenges in scaling up in a production setting. Without the benefit of an extensive installation base to visit, distribution leaders are often putting a lot of trust into unproven technologies and partners.
For those willing to make early investments to gain competitive advantage, there are several key strategies that can limit risk and maximize the probability of long-term success:
Understand the AMR provider. Effort should be invested in learning the background of a potential provider. How did it enter the distribution space? What types of partners and industries has it worked with? How many and how extensive are its implementations? Experience drives sophistication, and the gap between the provider’s experience and your situation is likely to result in time and effort, as the parties strive to develop a mutual solution.
Commoditize the bot. The reality is that not all AMR providers on the market today will survive commercially. Many will be acquired or simply go out of business, posing a risk to early adopters. This risk can be mitigated by pushing business-level logic to an agnostic warehouse execution system (WES) software package to the extent possible, while relying on the AMR provider only for basic control and navigation. This strategy allows for easier integration of multiple AMR hardware platforms, and provides the ability to change suppliers should one become unavailable. An agnostic design partner can also help to cut through marketing claims and evaluate various AMR platforms on their technical merits.
Conduct a well-designed pilot. Start with a small part of the operation that’s low risk but representative of the larger operation. The pilot should test the applicability of the technology to variable real-world conditions, so that issues can be identified and resolved within it. Thoroughly document processes and exceptions for all impacted areas, to ensure that the AMR software is ready for a larger implementation. Once the initial pilot is stable, expand to include as much of the future-state operation as possible without creating risk to the overall organization. Set clear objectives for a successful pilot to prevent it from extending indefinitely.
AMR technology will find a clear “sweet spot” within distribution operations, and a handful of well-established, sophisticated providers will provide ROI-backed solutions. While the future environment might involve less risk, gone too will be the competitive advantage enjoyed by those who understand the challenges of early adoption, and invest in the necessary approach to mitigate risk and ensure success.