We are seeing an explosive rise in the development and deployment of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) in the supply chain. In this article, we look at how the rapid increase in e-commerce led warehouse and distribution center operators to clamor for the benefits AMRs can provide and how the COVID-19 pandemic crisis is and could be affecting this demand in the future. Finally, we will introduce you to Bolt™, the collaborative AMR from IAM Robotics, and why it could be the AMR solution you’ve been waiting for.
The Exponential Rise of E-Commerce
Nothing has impacted supply chain industries as much as the exponential growth of e-commerce, accelerated even more by the global pandemic. In February 2020, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that online spending represented 16.0% of total retail sales in 2019. Unknown at the time, of course, was the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic would have on every aspect of life and business, particularly online shopping.
In fact, online sales data from approximately 10,000 retailers showed that e-commerce sales for the week of May 26 through June 1, 2020, were about 40% higher than the pre-pandemic benchmark week of Feb. 24 through March 1. While recent data is beginning to show a flattening in online sales, the e-commerce security experts at Signifyd do not see sales levels returning to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon. “The figures appear to reflect a plateauing of sales increases rather than a reversal of fortune as the COVID-19 pandemic continues,” the vendor says. As noted by Digital Commerce 360, “The longer the COVID-19 crisis goes on, the more likely it is we will hit warp speed in the decades-long march toward e-commerce and away from stores.” Many consumers are trying online purchases for the first time or purchasing goods they have never considered to buy online previously; others are increasing online purchases because they feel it is the only safe option. Regardless of the reasons, it is likely that at least some of this consumer behavior is here to stay.
The ‘New Now’ Could Be the ‘New Normal’
While societal trends of how we work, how we learn, how we shop, and how we use technology were changing rapidly before the pandemic, the high-speed acceleration of these changes coming out of the crisis will likely lead to a new normal. The short-term reaction is necessary for survival, but those businesses willing to pivot their operations to complement and exploit these behavioral changes will emerge as market leaders post-pandemic.
The senior fellow and policy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute, Mark Muro suggests, “Adoption of robotics doesn’t typically happen at a steady pace but instead in ‘bursts,’ especially in bad times such as in the wake of economic shocks when human labor becomes relatively more expensive as revenues decline.” This fact helps explain the recent rise in AMRs.
The Role of Robotics in the New Normal
Robots are already deployed across all segments of the supply chain, but expect to see an explosion in the number of robots working in warehouses and DCs as the growth of e-commerce fulfillment continues to rise. Even before the global pandemic and coinciding shifts in consumer behavior, the implementation of robotics and automation was expected to expand as companies look for ways to remain competitive.
Once considered a futuristic trend, autonomous robots are quickly becoming the go-to technology for the logistics industry. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are robotic solutions that are designed to increase efficiencies, provide significant cost savings, and mitigate risks associated with human resources. A variety of AMRs are currently in use. Some are considered “collaborative” — that is, designed to work with and around people — and others non-collaborative. In the world of e-commerce, AMRs are, typically designed to perform one or more of these specialized tasks:
- Moving product and other material
- Assisting in the picking process
- Facilitating sortation
- Increasing inventory visibility
Why Are AMRs So Popular
The popularity of AMRs is exploding because businesses need the benefits they provide, which other automation solutions and manual labor do not.
- Low barrier to entry – AMRs lower the barrier and risk to automation investment with their affordability and flexibility.
- Small autonomous mobility — Standard conveyor systems bolted to the floor are an impediment to workflow and efficiency compared to the small, quick, mobility AMRs can provide.
- Collaborative AMRs work well with people and other robots – Collaborative AMRs are designed to work with and around human workers as well as existing automation systems.
- Mitigate disease risk – AMRs allow you to have fewer workers on the warehouse floor and fewer working in close proximity to one another thereby mitigating disease spread.
- Quick deployment — While traditional automation systems can take months, even years, to fully deploy, AMRs can be working in a matter of a few weeks, so businesses can reap benefits fast.
The newest innovation from IAM Robotics is Bolt, a fully collaborative AMR designed to work in the same space as people to provide flexible mobile conveyance of product and material. Bolt offers unmatched flexibility with multiple interchangeable top modules to fit nearly any application, and it perfectly integrates pickup and dropoff tasks with existing automation and people-based workstations. Customized top modules provide endless possibilities — even beyond material handling — and our partnership with TREW Automation brings conveyance expertise to our collaborative solution.
Bolt’s payload capacity is impressive at 300 kg, and it is no slowpoke as it moves up to two meters per second and offers to pick up and drop off (P&D) material transfers in five seconds. Its powerful hot-swappable battery provides a long runtime of up to 20 hours on a single charge and 24/7 operation with its quick and easy 10-second battery swap. Plus, it offers autonomous battery charging with no-touch self-docking and charging.
Moreover, Bolt allows for quick fleet deployment that allows businesses to get the automation up and running in a matter of weeks. Our collaborative AMR reduces the need for other resources, both equipment and people, and offers the most advanced safety features available in an AMR.
Bolt is tough and built to provide years of reliable service in industrial applications and we believe we can address the growing demand for collaborative mobile robotics in an entirely different and better way than anyone else in the industry.