Expert roundtable: mobile robotics challenges & opportunities

Waypoint Robotics mobile robots

Waypoint Robotics’ Vector has found a wide variety of use cases, including work on a cricket farm. Source: Waypoint Robotics

The market for autonomous mobile robots continues to thrive, with a forecast of a 24 percent compound annual growth rate for 2018-2022, per Technavio. New players continue to enter the fray, and innovative new applications and proven use in large fleets are contributing to these vendors’ success.

To better understand the growth, the challenges, and the opportunities of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) turned to several market leaders. This virtual roundtable discussion includes Jeff Christensen, vice president of product at Seegrid; Ed Mullen, vice president of sales, Americas at Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR); Matthew Trowbridge, vice president of marketing at OMRON Automation Americas; and Jason Walker, CEO of Waypoint Robotics.

How do you help your customers weigh the pros and cons of AMRs with respect to other material transport options such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs), pallet trucks, conveyor systems, etc.?

Jeff Christensen, Seegrid: The key to automation decisions is not just thinking about what you need today, but also considering what you will need tomorrow. Selecting technologies that will adapt with your material flow over time is crucial to supporting long-term efficiencies.

Seegrid's Jeff Christensen talks about autonomous mobile robots.

Jeff Christensen, Seegrid

As an example, traditional infrastructure-based AGVs—those that need wires in the ground, tape, laser reflectors, or other physical infrastructure to navigate—require costly installation of permanent landmarks, which adds rigidity to a facility’s processes.

No one can predict all of the things they’re going to need down the road, so it’s important to future-proof your system by incorporating technologies that are adaptable to unforeseen changes so that your infrastructure will not be a bottleneck to productivity.

AMRs like Seegrid self-driving vehicles use camera-based vision guidance for navigation, making them highly adaptable to changing needs and allowing customers to instantaneously redeploy a vehicle to perform a different function, shift, or even to an entirely new facility.

Ed Mullen, MiR: There are several aspects that customers need to take into consideration when choosing their system: which material handling processes they want to automate, what distances materials should be transported, the environment they drive in, if there should be any integration to communications systems such as ERP, etc.

In respect to the other material transport options, AMRs are the new, flexible, and user-friendly alternative to systems that have been existing for years and that in many cases cannot live up to the requirements of companies today.

What we see in general is that companies are looking into how they can automate their material handling which is non-value-adding, but they have been missing a logistics system that can fit into their setup. Companies today are facing shrinking product lifecycles with frequently changing customer demands, so they need agile production and factory layouts that can easily be changed.

AGVs and conveyor systems are not flexible at all, but AMRs only require simple changes in their internal map, which make them the perfect match for agile companies.

OMRON's Matt Trowbridge is a leader in autonomous mobile robots.

Matthew Trowbridge, OMRON Americas

Matthew Trowbridge, OMRON Automation Americas: AGVs, pallet trucks, and conveyor systems are the technologies we are trying to replace, as they are cumbersome, heavy, and stationary.

Our mobile robots run off of enterprise software packages, which can coordinate up to 100 mobile robots in a single facility (with additional enterprise software packages available to increase the mobile robot fleet size).
They are completely autonomous and need no other guidance system, which saves businesses money by not requiring the installation of predefined routes.

Jason Walker, Waypoint Robotics: We encourage our customers to think about the more difficult-to-quantify aspects of the ROI calculation in addition to the measurable ones when adopting AMRs. Examples include higher job satisfaction when workers can focus on valuable tasks they are proud of, more energy at the end of the day, and a longer, more productive career. These benefits make it easier to attract and retain talent in a competitive job market.

What types of applications or industry segments are seeing the highest adoption of mobile robots? Similarly, what segments or applications do you think should be seeing higher adoption based on your knowledge of the state of the technology?

Christensen, Seegrid: The big push in both manufacturing and e-commerce is toward mass customization due to increasing demands from consumers for more diverse products and services quicker than ever before.

As the demand for these products grows, manufacturing and logistics managers must expect more material movement and associated costs to come on the supply side of the economic equation. Automation is a workable solution to fulfill consumer needs without increasing costs for non-value-added materials movement.

MiR's Ed Mullen discussed autonomous mobile robots in a virtual roundtable.

Ed Mullen, Mobile Industrial Robots

Mullen, MiR: The automotive and electronics industries have been the first to really adopt our mobile robots, which makes good sense, as these segments traditionally are first movers in terms of automation. According to IFR, the automotive industry is the major customer of industrial robots and counts for one-third of all implemented robots, and we have also seen that tendency.

But there’s no doubt that 3PLs and logistics also are segments of huge potential. Internal transportation takes place all the time, and we see how these companies are increasingly turning to mobile robots to gain competitive advantages throughout their value chain.

In general, the AMR market is still a market of potential that is waiting to really boom. We are doing a lot in order to educate the market and demonstrate the many different applications for our robots across industries. There is a need for our flexible, safe, user-friendly mobile robots in all segments.

Trowbridge, OMRON Automation Americas: The highest adoption rate is with large-scale warehouse facilities, with the hospitality industry close behind. For example, hotels are using the mobile robots to deliver food and drinks in lobbies and even to make room deliveries.

Similarly, hospitals are also utilizing the mobile robots to deliver medication and medical items to patients’ rooms.

We are expecting to see the uses grow in more manufacturing facilities, from automotive to medical devices. Specifically, industrial manufacturing is expected to be the next big boom for usage based on capabilities.

Waypoint Robotics' Jason Walker spoke at the 2018 Robotics Summit and Showcase.

Jason Walker, Waypoint Robotics

Walker, Waypoint Robotics: Logistics and warehousing are seeing higher adoption rates for AMRs. As difficult as warehouses can be, they were the next incremental step for what’s attainable with low-cost navigation systems. While there is certainly a need, it’s worth noting that there are a lot more companies and people pushing these solutions, so the spike in adoption may have a supply-side component as well.

In contrast, small to midsized manufacturers have great needs and have traditionally been underserved by automation in general and especially AMRs, so we expect there will be increasing demand in this market.

What are customers’ main concerns in implementing mobile robots and how are you addressing those concerns?

Christensen, Seegrid: The unknowns of new robotic technology can sometimes create concerns for companies regarding workplace safety. However, these concerns are often misplaced on automation—whereas the real danger is inherent in the tasks and jobs these technologies perform.

Safety is a key consideration for AMRs. Source: Seegrid

Our self-driving AMRs are proven to make workplaces safer and reduce the number of human-involved accidents over time. By removing human involvement from dangerous tasks, it reduces the chance they will be injured on the job and allows them to take on higher-level roles in the organization.

Mullen, MiR: Our robots are collaborative and completely safe, but customers are not used to this technology, and as our robots are transporting materials up to 500 kg among people that are walking around without any safety measures, safety is definitely a topic that comes up. Companies need to be absolutely sure that our robots are actually safe.

At MiR, our robots speak for themselves, and an onsite demo can help customers understand the navigation and collaborative aspect of our robots. Our robots are loaded with safety features, and we live up to the relevant safety standards – safety is our main priority.

Trowbridge, OMRON Automation Americas: Much like the challenges any newer technology faces, we are overcoming the initial thought process of what it is, how much it costs, how it can be used, and the return on investment. We want to have these conversations with people. Most customers find that the return on investment for mobile robots like ours can be as soon as six months or less, with the longest we have seen hit only two years.

OMRON’s AMRs can be used in a variety of environments.

Walker, Waypoint Robotics: Customers are challenged with the risk of effort and expense in changing processes, the loss of productivity while making the change, and not feeling confident that the robots are going to work as promised. Another risk is negative perception of the workforce.

Mullen, MiR: We see many innovative solutions. There is a big focus on adding mobility to more industrial robots, and many customers and integrators are working on solutions with collaborative robot arms on top of the MiR robots.

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What are some of the most innovative ways you’ve seen mobile robots implemented?

Christensen, Seegrid: First, let’s debunk the myth that being innovative with mobile robots has to be complex and expensive. One of the real benefits of automated technology is that it can be leveraged effectively at both small and large scales. If you’re a regional supplier and thinking about how to operationalize a mobile robot for your warehouse, it is most effective when done incrementally, starting with a few vehicles that can lighten the load on your workforce.

For larger operations who have implemented and realized the effects of automation on a micro level, the addition of each new machine gives rise to interoperability benefits that come as a result of having a fleet of automated technologies self-coordinating movement and maximizing productivity.

We see many fully automated solutions, for example, where our robots serve as the flexible link between production lines or fixed conveyors, and our robots can take an elevator and open doors and lift entire shelves.

Trowbridge, OMRON Automation Americas: One of our favorite uses we have seen has been in hotels. The robots can sync up to function with the elevators, effectively enabling them to go in and out of the elevators to deliver items to proper rooms and return to their starting destination for the next delivery. With the technology being so new, customers are finding new ways to capitalize on the vast capabilities of the mobile robots.

Walker, Waypoint Robotics: Feeding and watering crickets in an industrial cricket farm.

What changes do you anticipate or are you hoping to see in the next year or so that will continue to drive the technology and the industry forward?

Christensen, Seegrid: We’re excited to be contributing to the shift from automation of material handling towards a holistic view of automating material flow in any given supply chain. Whereas materials handling consists of the individual physical moves in a given environment, material flow is the logical optimization of all of those movements.

We anticipate that the future of material flow will mean becoming less concerned with the movement of each individual pallet and more focused on the ways in which the flow of all material can be optimized to reach the ultimate end-goal. With improved consistency and predictability, combined with lower operating costs, moving product to customer to meet demand can be fulfilled with higher levels of profitability and customer satisfaction.

Mullen, MiR: From MiR, we are looking into AI and how it can contribute to even better navigation, so the robots can recognize obstacles and react accordingly. Making our mobile robots smarter will make it easier for our customers to install fleets of robots.

MiR's Ed Mullen expects autonomous mobile robot applications to spread.

Applications for AMRs will increase over time, says Ed Mullen. Source: MiR

Furthermore, as the knowledge of mobile robots increase, so will the potential applications. We are seeing a growing ecosystem of manufacturers that are building top modules for our robots, and this will hopefully grow significantly in the coming years. This means that it will become easier for customers to have mobile robot solutions out of the box and speed up the integration process.

Trowbridge, OMRON Automation Americas: Safety is a central pillar of OMRON technology, and our fleet of mobile robots are very safe to operate around humans. Additionally, safety technology will continue to grow even more advanced.

The main thing that can help advance the industry the most is to increase the load-carrying capacities and the understanding and acceptance of the technology by different industries and customers. The technology is so new that it is difficult to accept. Once customers understand the return on investment and scalability, it will launch the popularity of mobile robots forward.

Walker, Waypoint Robotics: We hope to see buyers demand products designed for the workforce.

Note: Mobile robots will be highly visible at the Automate 2019 conference and exhibition, with a full track of speaking sessions (along with collaborative robots) and a wide range of exhibitors. More information about the show can be found at https://www.automateshow.com.

About the author:

Jeff Burnstein is the president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), the global advocate for the benefits of automating and the producer of Automate 2019, North America’s largest showcase devoted to automation industry trends, leading-edge technology and business innovation.

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