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Balancing process, people and technology in automation solutions

Dr Paul Rivers, CEO at Guidance Automation, considers why the deployment of an automation solution should take into account the process, people and technology.

There has been much written about the benefits that automation can unlock for businesses, but too often businesses think they need to jump in at the deep end and deploy automation technology straight away, hoping it will solve the problems they are experiencing. But how will a process optimised for a manual workforce perform with automation – such as an Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV)? How will people respond when their day to day roles change? 

Automation misconception

Industry 4.0 can transform organisations’ processes and operations. It can revolutionise productivity, improve accuracy and unleash new levels of efficiency. In operating environments where skills are thin on the ground and staff recruitment and retention a challenge, automation appears to be a fast track to nirvana. Yet the reality is somewhat different. 

Automation is not a direct replacement for a human workforce – and how could it be? However technically advanced, today’s automated solutions may offer huge opportunities to improve productivity, but they do not replicate the activities of a human workforce in a like for like manner. By failing to truly consider how the technology will be deployed – and, critically, how it will work in tandem with a human workforce – organisations are fundamentally failing to get the point of automation or reap the rewards. 

Some mistakes are basic, such as installing a fleet of AGVs but failing to consider the need for automatic door opening. Others are more fundamental, such as overlooking the implications of dropping technology into a workplace without engaging the workforce. Either way, a misunderstanding of automation and its implications for both people and process can lead to serious operational problems that risk derailing essential investment in improvement. 

Understanding the process

Assessing the way in which automation will fit within an existing process is critical. If, for example, one of the biggest issues within a warehouse is vehicle congestion, especially at peak times, simply replacing human operated vehicles with AGVs without considering the timing and location of the routes is not going to address the problem. Reconsidering the traffic flow, the way orders are batched, the tasks and schedules is essential to maximise the specific value of the AGVs. 

Growing numbers of organisations are considering the use of automated vehicles to replace the highly manual task of driving around a warehouse, picking items and delivering those items to a loading station. Reallocating those individuals to dedicated pick locations makes operational sense – but this is not a like for like situation. For example, while individuals may only be able to operate a single pick model, an AGV may be able to pick up to three, not only reducing non-productive time but also cutting the number of autonomous vehicles, and hence investment, required. 

For companies investing in Automated Mobile Robots (AMRs), analysing the SKUs, the process, the distance travelled by vehicles on each route is key to understanding how many robots are required. Furthermore, by running a simulation of how the automated model would work in practice, an organisation can highlight opportunities to optimise the batching of orders to dispatch to the AGVs, gaining further efficiency advantages. 

Engaging the people 

Even the most optimised process can still be derailed if the workforce does not understand how to work with AMRs or, even worse, is actively interfering with the robotic vehicles. Ensuring people are part of this process from the very beginning is essential because their day to day activities will change. 

The positive benefits for employees are significant – not least the use of solutions such as mobile conveyors to minimise the need for heavy and repetitive lifting. When technology can completely eradicate these arduous tasks – and the workforce is required to simply verify the item by scanning – individuals will respond well to the change. But people need to be educated, trained and confident. They need to understand how the technology works and how they work together. A workforce chasing AMRs down the aisle because they do not understand where the system is designed to stop does not represent a harmonious human/machine interaction. 

There will, of course, be changes to the skillsets required – fork lift drivers will increasingly be replaced by automated vehicles. However, in a market desperate to recruit and retain individuals with experience, this provides companies with a chance to retrain highly skilled fork lift drivers to, for example, supervise loading or oversee picking teams. Highlighting the specific skills (like picking) that are simply not in the purview of automation today is an important part of this automation evolution and key to creating an operating environment that combines excellent technology with an engaged and motivated workforce. 

Embracing the technology

By considering both the processes and the people who operate those processes today, organisations can take a far more intelligent approach to automation. Add in simulation to understand how AMRs, for example, might operate at different times is critical to highlighting potential problems and avoiding inefficiencies. 

Plus, of course, these systems deliver real time data in huge detail. Combining analytics to monitor conditions in real time with dynamic fleet scheduling and route optimisation will enable continuous improvement. The technology is brilliant; but it is the way it is deployed, the way orders are batched, and schedules planned, the way people are managed and skilled, that is the key to truly realising the potential of automation.  

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