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Comment: How Santa could improve efficiency at his North Pole DC


eiratech-ceoA badly needed robotics upgrade at the North Pole will eliminate drudge, and free up ‘elf power’ for tasks requiring decision-making and manual dexterity, writes Alexey Tabolkin CEO of Eiratech Robotics.
With demand continuing to spiral around the world, and with a delivery window of just 24 hours in which to completely fulfil it in time for Christmas morning, the busiest toy distribution centre in the world will benefit greatly from a robotics automation upgrade both in terms of efficiency and in maximising elf resources.

Over time, demand from around the globe has begun to outstrip even Santa’s ability to supply and placed a great strain on resources to deliver. A switchover to automation can seem daunting, but of course this need not be undertaken in all one go. A phased revamp will offer the chance to assess how easily a switch to automation can be – and this can begin by simply clearing an area of the distribution warehouse floor space to install a limited ‘goods-to-person’ automated guided vehicle (agv) system to test requirements and measure results. This can then be extended over time.

Whether adapting the current premises, or moving to a purpose-built warehouse, the requirements of robots differ greatly from a traditional workforce. Outside the premises, parking spaces will be freed up, while inside, there will be less requirement for bathrooms and canteens. Environmental requirements like lighting and heating will also differ, while wireless routers and electricity for recharging stations are critical for robots’ power and communication.

Equally important is the layout of the premises. Robots like agvs for example work best if the storage space is all on one level, while the floors themselves are critical from a surface point of view. While the latest generation of agv robots often require nothing more than stickers placed on the ground to guide them around the warehouse, they do require a smooth, level, hard surface on which to run, so carpeting or rough warehouse flooring will need to be replaced with something more suitable.

Warehouse storage capacity too should increase with the deployment of agvs, which require mere centimetres clearance on either side of the shuttles as they pass one another on their way to or from the picking area. Robots are unwavering, and they will never deviate from their course even by a centimetre, making aisle widths standard throughout the facility according to the width of the goods being dispatched.

In return for this reorganisation, robots deliver unmatched efficiency, particularly if like agvs they are allowed to run in secured dedicated aisles. Agvs will happily run all day until it is time for a recharge, and the first order they fill will be as accurate as the last, with no variation in between.

Their efficiency however might be compromised if they have to share their workspace with other warehouse workers. In that instance, safety considerations will require the robots to slow down or stop when they encounter human (or elf) traffic.

This loss is known as the ‘efficiency gap’, and is at its greatest when dealing with so-called ‘co-bots’ which travel from zone to zone, collecting goods for dispatch from pickers as they go. Clearly, in this shared work space, safety requires a slower pace, and a stopping mechanism when they encounter ‘softer’ co-workers.

Agvs, with their dedicated work space however, encounter no such ‘gap’, and allow pickers to work to the speed of the robots, rather than the other way round, often increasing pick rates by up to six fold.

Robots are also self-organising, so as well as brining the goods to dispatch in the correct order for dispatch, they also recognise which goods are most popular, and will store shuttles containing those SKUs closer to the picking area than those with less demand, further increasing efficiency.

Clearing the warehouse floor of elves and replacing them with robots poses another question: what to do with all that redundant ‘elf power’. It is estimated that in a non-automated warehouse or distribution centre environment, approximately 70% of workers’ time is spent searching for and retrieving goods, often walking 12-15km per shift in the process. This time can be more profitably used performing more challenging – and less wearing – tasks, including those which robots are unable to do.

While robots are much better at mundane and exhausting tasks like searching and retrieving, there are many tasks that they simply cannot perform with any efficiency: those requiring manual dexterity and decision making for example, such as picking, checking, and dealing with returns. Automated manual dexterity remains in its infancy for all except standard sized packages, while the returns process – unpacking, checking for faults or wear, assigning for reintegration into stock or disposal, and all the administration associated with that task – is a job requiring assessment and judgement, proving that some tasks remain beyond the reach of robots. For now.

Happy Christmas!

Alexey Tabolkin is CEO of Eiratech Robotics

Image credit: Pixabay

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