You’ve done your research. You’ve worked with an experienced automation integrator to analyze your project scope and make sure your automation plans meet your needs today and into the future. Together, you’ve investigated your needs for product payload and dimension, cycle times, and other requirements to help you choose the right robot and mobile robotic equipment (MRE) for a safe, successful deployment and optimal performance.
You may feel like you’re all ready to go, but experienced integrators say there are a few important preparation steps that will help drive the success of your automation plans.
Like many fundamental business changes, automation gives you an opportunity to think differently about how and why you do things. This is your chance to make everything from subtle adjustments to big changes—so you can reap big benefits.
Think about the last large technology implementation you undertook—perhaps introducing an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to improve efficiency and control of core business systems. For years before that change, your employees developed and became comfortable with manual ways to manage and collaborate, from sticky notes, color charts, and bulletin boards to email, text messages, and shared spreadsheets. Letting go of those processes—whether they work well or not—can be tough. Even though the new ERP system promises to streamline the flow of information, help employees anticipate and proactively address issues, and let them collaborate more successfully with coworkers, the new system probably still took some getting used to.
And some habits die hard.
Robots offer similar advantages in efficiency and productivity, but also take some getting used to. Preparing your facility and employees ahead of time can help drive faster success (and return on investment) for your automation initiative.
Here are seven tips to help get your facility and your employees ready for this exciting new step.
1. Walk before you run
One of the great advantages of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) is that they’re often less expensive and easier to physically integrate into existing production processes than other automated transport options. That’s especially true with readily available, standard mobile robotics equipment (MRE), including cart and pallet lifters and top rollers for conveyor integration. With modular mobile robots and standard MRE, most companies don’t need to change existing floor layouts or shut down production to install complex infrastructures and equipment.
But changing from manual to automated material transport can have a ripple effect. When workers don’t have to move around the facility with materials and can count on having what they need at hand when they need it, you may find opportunities for even more efficiency gains around related processes.
The best approach is to consider a pilot run before you jump into a large implementation. With a walk-before-you-run approach, you can test and prove workflows and processes in one area or production line. Once you have the kinks out, you’ll be ready to expand quickly and efficiently, especially if you’ve taken a standard MRE approach that streamlines implementation.
2. Check your Wi-Fi and get IT buy-in
Mobile robots don’t require much in the way of infrastructure, but they do depend on reliable Wi-Fi connectivity so you can remotely track, program, and manage your robots using their fleet management software. Your integration may also need the robots to interact with other internal systems such as ERP, manufacturing execution systems (MES), or warehouse management systems (WMS).
To make sure your robots stay connected to internal networks, involve your IT department in your automation plans early so they understand your needs and what resources you’ll need from them. Ask your integrator or internal IT group to conduct a Wi-Fi coverage survey to see traffic patterns on your Wi-Fi access points and identify any coverage voids. Consider creating a separate SSID for the robots to eliminate overlap with other systems and smartphone traffic.
3. Communicate with employees so they know what to expect
Any technology initiative can cause anxiety among employees who may not fully understand how their jobs will change—or if the change will be to their advantage. Getting employee buy-in early can have a huge impact on the success of your automation plans. Communicate regularly with employees to educate them on what you’re doing and why, and what benefits you expect. Present those benefits in their terms—not just how automation is good for the company, but how it will improve their jobs by reducing monotonous tasks like pushing a cart around and giving them more opportunities for growth.
You may need to address fears of automation costing jobs. This is a great opportunity to encourage and support employees who want to take courses or participate in robotic training to build their skills. Help them understand that automating repetitive tasks like material transport frees them for more interesting work.
4. Identify a robot boss
Mobile robots are designed to be user-friendly and reliable, but as with any sophisticated technology, things can occasionally go wrong. Think about who workers should call if something happens with the robot that needs to be addressed. Who is authorized to interact with the robot and adjust its missions? What training does that person need? If a process or physical layout needs to change, who should be involved to make sure the robot will be back on task as quickly as possible?
This may be a great opportunity to identify those employees who can grow their skills and provide more value as an automation expert.
5. Analyze your environment and plan your routes
Your internal automation team or integrator will typically prepare for your robot deployment with a CAD layout of your facility. They’ll also likely do a walkthrough or at least want you to provide a video walkthrough. Close collaboration at this stage allows you to think through what the deployment will look like. Where are your high and low traffic areas? What are the best routes for the robot, and what areas should it avoid? Where are ideal pick-up and drop-off points? Where is the most efficient place for the robots’ charging stations?
Your integrator can help you identify potential pitfalls, such as aisles that aren’t wide enough for the robot. They’ll also help you analyze your environment, including floor surfaces and conditions like dust or cleaning products, which can affect the robot’s traction and impact payload and speed as well as safety. Other concerns are areas where pallets, stacks of boxes, or lines of carts may be left in an aisle or moved in and out. This can either block the robot’s path or can make the aisle unrecognizable to the robot’s sensors, so it can’t localize and navigate the area. With some advance planning, you can make necessary changes so you don’t run into issues at deployment.
Make sure you also think beyond the robot. It’s the platform for your automated transport, but the MRE is what will make or break your deployment. Your integrator will help you look beyond the basic specs for both the robot and MRE and take into account application-specific conditions. For instance, you may choose a top module that perfectly matches your material weight, but if what’s being transported is too high or wide for the top module that can impact safety and maneuverability. Thinking through all the details will help ensure success.
6. User interaction
One of the decisions you’ll need to make is how (or if) your workers will interact with the robots. Will material pickup and delivery be completely automated through internal software systems and programed delivery? Will the robots run regular “bus routes,” travelling on a timed schedule from one area to the next through the warehouse or production area? Or will workers press a call button to let the robot know it needs to come to that station?
Automatic pickup and delivery is a more complex implementation, but top module options such as cart lifters and integrated conveyors can deliver material to a workstation without depending on workers. Employees don’t need to remember to call the robot or interrupt their work to interact with it.
7. A place for everything and everything in its place
A side benefit of mobile robots is that they encourage a tidy work environment. While the robots can navigate around obstacles such product stacked in work areas, that can slow down deliveries and impact efficiency and productivity. Many facilities mark areas to keep clear for the robot’s path and educate employees on where material can—and cannot—be left. Clear pathways can also reduce tripping hazards.
Instead of products piling up to wait for a fork truck or cart to take a large load, robots can move product consistently all day long. Automated MRE can pick up carts, pallets, or material from conveyors even if employees aren’t present. This helps the facility become more streamlined as material is where it belongs and where workers can find it.