When presented with something new, a bit of skepticism usually comes with it, as it should. But when the facts have been proven, it’s time to put that skepticism aside and see what is really in front of you.
Automation and robotics are constantly being judged for their future implications on the economy, people’s daily lives, and job prospects. In some cases, they’re judged favorably and in others, they’re judged quite harshly. It’s important to know both sides in order to make the best choices as we move forward. It’s also important to know that not all forms of automation are created equal and to distinguish the positive forms of automation, that help us grow, from the negative.
The Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) is a unique form of automation that can sometimes be mistakenly grouped in with “automation” as a whole, for better or worse. The idea behind AMRs (at least at ForwardX Robotics) is to create a better working environment for people while making the user’s operations faster, stronger, and smarter. Here we’re going to look at four common misconceptions about AMRs and see exactly why these beliefs need to be updated.
Misconception #1: AMRs Are Making Jobs Harder
One common misconception is that AMRs make people work harder. It’s easy to see where this idea stems from: AMRs increase worker productivity two- to three-fold.
It’s true that AMRs are increasing individual worker productivity, particularly in picking workflows. But it’s not because workers must work harder, it’s because workers are able to worker smarter.
An article released in early 2021 highlights the ways AMRs have made work harder on employees. I can’t speak on behalf of all AMRs, but I can compare ForwardX AMRs to the points raised against them.
How AMRs would make the job harder:
AMRs increase productivity by setting a relentless pace for employees to follow the robot to pick locations.
Robots “bring the shelves to the pickers” and cause employees to stand still all day, reaching, twisting, bending, and pulling.
What ForwardX AMRs actually do:
ForwardX AMRs use a zoning method. They don’t require people to follow them around the warehouse. The AMRs do all the long haul traveling while the employees focus on specific areas of the warehouse to fulfill the parts of orders that fall into that person’s zone. When the picker places the item on the robot, it moves onto the next zone and another robot takes its place with the picker to fill a different order or part of an order.
What happens for the employee is they get to eliminate virtually all the cart pulling and pushing or long walks carrying the sometimes awkward or heavy goods. Now the employee can focus on a small area and get more work done while physically exerting less energy.
Misconception #2: AMRs Are Taking Our Jobs
This one is as old as time. With progressive technology we always get the scare of losing jobs to new tech. And in some ways, this narrative is justified, but it leaves out everything it creates and only looks at one side of the coin.
Technology does take jobs, but it also creates jobs. In McKinsey Global Institute’s New World of Work podcast, they do a deep dive on the history of technology and jobs.
We tallied up all the jobs destroyed in the US since 1980 as a result of the rise of personal computing and the Internet, and it’s about 3.5 million. We see declines in a lot of these occupations that were once large and today are very small or nonexistent.
When we add up all the jobs created, we find that over 19 million jobs have been created as a result of the personal computer and Internet. We see a net gain of 15.8 million jobs in the US over the last few decades. And that’s about 10 percent of the civilian labor force today, is in an occupation or a job that’s a direct result of the introduction of this technology. Of course, this plays out over decades, but I think it’s important to remember in all the discussion of automation today that there will be growth of occupations and industries, that we can’t even imagine that over time will replace the work that’s being automated.
That’s all well and good when you look at the macro scale. But what about on the micro scale, what about the people that will lose their jobs today?
In order to take jobs away, the jobs need to be filled or have people that want to fill them. Unfortunately, or fortunately for AMRs, we just don’t have the workforce to fill all the jobs in the warehousing industry that are needed.
If we look at the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, we see that in July 2021, there was an average of 406,000 unfilled positions at any given time in the warehousing industry. That’s before the peak season where places like Walmart, Target, and Amazon (to name just a few) were looking to hire 100,000–150,000 seasonal employees EACH!
AMRs aren’t taking jobs away from people, they’re filling a void that is desperately needed if companies are to keep up with consumer demand.
Misconception #3: AMRs Are Basically the Same as AGVs
Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) may look like AMRs, but they are different in some crucial ways. Here we’re just going to break down some of the key factors that differentiate the two.
- Require infrastructure change
- Work in fixed routes
- Must wait for obstacles to be cleared
- No infrastructure change needed
- Work in optimized and flexible routes
- Can avoid obstacles and reroute autonomously
Without the need for infrastructure change, AMRs can be deployed in any environment and without any downtime in setting them up. Workflows change, SKUs change, and businesses grow and develop. The tools that you use to optimize your operation should be able to grow and change with you and the people involved. AMRs are able to do this, where other forms of automation cannot.
Misconception #4: AMRs Are Too Expensive
First, let’s look at it from the capital expenditure (CapEx) point of view. When viewed from this perspective, AMRs do cost quite a bit up front for businesses to outright purchase. According to McKinsey & Company’s Industrial robotics: Insights into the sector’s future growth dynamics, “By far the most widely cited challenge is the cost of robots.” In their survey, “All players identified the cost of robots as one of the primary challenges to adoption.”
However, when comparing the upfront costs to the overall savings that come with it, it’s really no comparison. The cost of the additional labor, that isn’t available, would cost far more than the cost of a robot. Taking everything into account; wages, benefits, training costs, paid leave, overtime, etc. a company will pay far more for a person than it would for a few robots.
The CapEx goes down further when you start to look at Robots-as-a-Service (RaaS) models.
This brings us back to AMRs being mistakenly grouped into “automation” as a whole. When you compare the cost of implementing Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS), Conveyors, AGVs, etc. to AMRs, it’s no contest. AMRs cost a mere fraction to that of other forms of automation, largely since there is no downtime in implementing them and no infrastructure changes are necessary.
Learn more about the savings AMRs can offer in our whitepaper: The Optimal Time for Investing in AMRs where we break down the numbers.
It’s great that people are looking at new technologies with a bit of healthy skepticism, but AMRs have moved past that. It’s time we move past it too and see what they’re doing for companies that have already invested in them. If you spend too long ignoring the results and focusing on the “what ifs,” you’re going to fall behind.
It is time to make material handling your competitive edge.
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