In the last year alone, automation has taken off for companies of all types and sizes. A trend that was growing even in “normal” times suddenly skyrocketed as businesses needed labor and fulfillment help in the wake of COVID-19. But did that mean an uptick in factory-like settings and the conveyor systems of yesteryear? Or is there a better option?

“Better” is for you to decide, but we’ll say this: supply chain leaders around the world knew they needed to pivot, and nearly half of them invested in technology like robotics during the pandemic. According to MHI, the top uses for automation surround picking/packing/sorting orders, loading/unloading/stacking, and facility-wide material/product movement. 

In the battle between autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) vs. conveyors, which automation solution wins for you?

Conveyor Overview

Until recently, when companies thought of automation, images of extensive conveyor systems came to mind. They still do to a degree, because the humble conveyor is a proven automation tool. Manufacturing and distribution centers around the world have turned to conveyors for years, and for good reasons.

Conveyors have cemented themselves as go-to options because of their:curved conveyor | IAM Robotics

  • Reliability
  • Speed and continuous operation
  • Ability to be mounted or suspended in the air

Of course, conveyors have drawbacks, too, restricting how and what you can accomplish on the warehouse floor. 

  • Fixed conveyors restrict free movement in facilities
  • Conveyors only move in one direction, requiring more conveyors or laborers

These shortcomings undoubtedly provide motivation to continuously improve automation technology.

Opportunities for Conveyors

Remember: Even though conveyors are “legacy” automation, it doesn’t mean they’re obsolete. In fact, facilities new and old benefit from the technology daily.

Conveyors in New Facilities

Owners and/or managers need to weigh their options when it comes time to purchase and onboard new automation equipment. 

  • What will the facility be doing regularly? Conveyors are proven solutions for material handling, from product to packaging and beyond. 
  • How much conveyor is required? The more P&D locations, the more complex and expensive the conveyor installation could be. 

Along the way, consider how consistent and predictable material volumes could be, which will influence whether conveyors are ideal.

Conveyors in Existing Facilities

Conveyors became important because there weren’t many options for connecting automated systems or manual process stations. But despite technological evolution, an untold number of facilities still use and install conveyor automation, because sometimes that works best. Whether it’s a matter of replacing equipment or installing it from scratch, the decision requires some thought. 

  • What are/were the design expectations for the conveyor? Are business needs changing?
  • Is this a facility-wide redesign? What’s the desired impact for the conveyor system?

With more options today, it could make sense to change course. AMRs are the new frontrunners for automation efficiency, easily replacing conveyor sub-systems and providing new benefits.

AMR Overview 

When one trend fades, ten more take its place. AMRs are in the spotlight, with the potential to streamline order picking, material handling, and everything in between. And they answer most of the flaws inherent to conveyor systems.

AMRs are the complete opposites of their legacy automation counterparts. As adoption grows, manufacturing and distribution centers praise AMRs for their:

  • FlexibilityIAM Robotics Bolt
  • Mobility
  • Omnidirectional movement
  • Adaptability 

These are benefits you don’t often (or ever) get with conveyors, making AMRs worthy opponents as the new automation workhorses.

Opportunities for AMRs

AMRs are up and coming, but the best automation solutions make operations better. So if you’re leaning toward new automation in the choice between AMRs vs. conveyors, AMRs must be up to your tasks. 

  • If the facility has conveyors, do they satisfy operational needs? If not, is it because of capacity, operational flexibility, or physical space constraints? 
  • How many hours does the system operate normally? What about peak times?
  • Could removing conveyors fix operational barriers?  
  • Which types of traffic would impact AMR movement paths?

Knowing what you’re asking of new automation—in terms of labor and adaptability to people and existing technology—is a solid start to understanding the potential of AMRs for your needs.  

Practical Considerations for AMRs vs. Conveyors

Deciding between conveyors and AMRs comes down to more than flexibility, mobility, and reliability. So, take a hard look at the nuts and bolts of how the facility currently operates and consider future operational goals.

  • Density – Does volume travel across all or only a portion of the system length? If a good bit of material volume travels only part way through the system, AMRs can easily travel ancillary paths or move point to point. However, conveyors are more expensive the more diverts and merge points you add.
  • Distance + Rate – How much are you asking of your material handling system? AMRs are favorable in longer, lower-volume systems. That’s because the longer the distance, the more conveyors you need—for more money. Conveyors work best for higher-volume systems because of the upfront costs to accommodate high capacities. With lower volume, conveyors don’t live up to the expense, making AMRs the better alternative.
  • Accumulation – The need for buffering (a dedicated area for totes to wait until the next station is available) favors a conveyor-only or conveyor/AMR hybrid solution. Totes can wait directly on conveyors, but AMRs don’t accommodate this because such idling takes the robot(s) off the work floor. The compromise is to add conveyors for the AMR(s) to use as drop-offs.
  • Flexible Capacity – AMRs provide flexibility for P&D volume pairs and remove fixed barriers. Conveyors are fixed entities, but AMRs are dynamic, impacting warehouse layout and capacity. P&D stations can be oriented to minimize loading and unloading time, increasing or decreasing in size based on demand. AMRs easily allow these stations to expand or decrease, while fixed conveyors require major design changes and upfront costs to alter based on demand.
  • Direction – Versatility in automation makes for better productivity. Omnidirectional flow and free-range movement give AMRs an edge vs. conveyors.

No two facilities or applications are alike, so choosing automation solutions is a unique experience. Along the way, you may find that the current space can’t accommodate legacy automation or that it’s big enough to welcome conveyors, AMRs, or a combination of both. 

Need a Recommendation? Let IAM Robotics Do the Hard Work.

Warehouse automation is no joke, and can make a difference between falling short or maintaining productivity. With years of experience in robotics, our team knows how to make sound recommendations based on data, future goals, and expert simulations. We call this our Simulation Opportunity Assessment for Robots (SOAR) process, which provides a clear picture of whether AMR deployment is the right fit. Get in touch for more information.