Demand for next-generation autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) is skyrocketing due to the transformational impact AMRs have on warehouse operations. As AMRs become more autonomous and intelligent, costs and complexities are coming down, which opens up the market to more companies.
In Gartner’s 11th annual Supply Chain Technology User Wants and Needs Study, respondents were asked about their investment plans for emerging technologies. Seventeen percent said they have already invested in Internet of Things/robotics or are planning to invest in these areas, indicating they will either replace conventional automation with robots or buy robots as their first investments in material handling automation. Furthermore, when asked about the current state of their pursuit of automation, 60% said they are in knowledge gathering, strategy development, and requirements documentation, with an additional 17% saying they are piloting AMRs. However, only 10% of respondents said they are moving AMRs into production, with only 6% saying they are broadly deploying.
AMRs add intelligence, guidance and sensory awareness to historically “dumb” automated guided vehicles (AGVs), allowing them to operate independently and around humans. AMRs address the historic limitations of traditional AGVs, making them better suited to, and more cost-effective for, complex warehouses. As computing power has multiplied and the cost of sensors has declined, market demand for AMRs has grown. As customer demand strengthens, resource availability to deploy AMRs is poised to become a barrier to growth.
Increasing operational labor constraints are a primary demand driver for AMRs. Companies find it more and more difficult to source, on-board, train and retain operational workers, and they seek various forms of automation, including AMRs, to mitigate these shortages. While the focus of automation is on addressing operational labor constraints, technical resource limitations are a growing barrier to wider spread adoption of AMRs. Both end-user companies and AMR vendors struggle to find personnel with AMR knowledge, expertise and most importantly experience implementing, deploying and maintaining AMRs. Combined, these cause organizational readiness challenges and will be a notable limit to growth, which will slow large-scale deployments for many companies.
The Material Handling Institute (MHI) invited Gartner to participate in a high-level workshop exploring organizational readiness for material handling automation. Participants were asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how ready both the end user and provider communities are to implement advanced/emerging technologies in material handling, including robotics. While not statistically valid, the average score across the workshop groups was under 5 (4.94), suggesting that readiness will remain a barrier to adoption and growth in automation.
The groups were also asked what they saw as the top obstacles/barriers that end users would need to overcome to implement advanced technologies. Participants identified budgetary, funding and ROI considerations as common challenges, but they were seen as addressable with the right tools and methodologies such as ROI toolkits. More problematic, respondents identified challenges with risk aversion and mitigation and significant concerns with resourcing projects. Respondents noted apprehensions in having adequate staffing, engineering and IT skills, and knowledgeable and experienced people. Combined, these will slow adoption of advanced automation as demand will be constrained until customers can resolve these issues, at least in their minds.
Companies considering robotics or other forms of advanced automation should recognize that AMRs do not fully eliminate their need to develop some degree of internal expertise to effectively deploy robots at scale. AMRs have a lower resource burden when compared to conventional automation, but the resource impact is not zero. Companies should initially pilot multiple AMRs to identify which best fit their use case, leveraging the knowledge gathered during the pilots to craft a resource requirements list based on the specific AMRs on the final short list.
Companies should look internally first to see if they have technical resources to train and repurpose to support the AMR project. Alternatively, they can work with AMR vendors to either source and hire internal support resources if there are none today, or discuss various support options from vendors, including their responses, in the final decision-making process. In the end, companies should consider delaying projects until addressing the technical resource issue.
Dwight Klappich, VP Analyst, Supply Chain Technology, Gartner