How to automate the intralogistics of all your factories with mobile robots (AGVs/AMRs)

The automation of internal logistics is among the priorities of many of the large industrial companies. No wonder, logistics costs are increasing and also do not add any value to the product. In particular, the automation of intralogistics with mobile robots (AGVs or AMRs), in addition to other benefits, allows the reduction of significant operating costs.

Before continuing, has any company really carried this out? The truth is that yes, but it is not something that is generally made known since it is a competitive advantage. An example is the automation of kitting flows that the PSA Group (currently Stellantis) has done for almost all its factories:

Another example in the logistics world is the order picking model that Amazon has applied:

The first question that arises when thinking about the automation of the logistics of more than one factory is why not study the case of each factory separately. The reality is that the standardization of automation for all factories has many advantages:

1. Technology validation is performed for all plants simultaneously.

2. The exchange of people and equipment (AGVs/AMRs) between different factories is much easier.

3. It fosters Continuous Improvement.

4. The measurement of logistics KPIs and their subsequent comparison between factories adds great value.

5. It allows production transfers from one factory to another.

On the other hand, this standardization also encounters several obstacles:

1. The logistics in the different factories around the world is totally different.

2. Mobile robotics legislation is different in each region or country.

3. The orientation towards automation is different in each country and it could be said that almost in each factory.

In any case, the benefits of standardization make any hurdles seem small.

Let's see what are the steps to follow and how we can overcome the obstacles.

Step 1: Efficiency comes first

Automating is great, but first we have to be efficient. Otherwise we would be automating inefficiency, which would not reduce operating costs as much as we would like. In my opinion, the best way to be efficient is to apply Lean Manufacturing, always keeping in mind that once we are efficient we will automate. In this way we generate a standardization of efficiency that we are going to apply to all factories. Thus we overcome the first obstacle mentioned previously.

Step 2: Definition of a first logistics flow to automate

Our efficient logistics flows will be of three types:

  • Type 1: potential simple automation.

  • Type 2: potential complicated automation.

  • Type 3: automation is not possible.

From all of them, we select the one whose automation is as simple as possible. In this way, we ensure a greater probability of success in automation. It is important that the first automation project is successful to build trust and confindence around automation.

Once this first flow is selected, we design how the automation will be carried out. That is to say: what type of mobile robots (AGVs and/or AMRs) are we going to use, what will be their interaction with the environment, how will be the load they are going to transport, etc.

In addition, we select two factories that have this logistics flow and that also have their staff more familiar with automated solutions. These two plants will be the first to test mobile robots.

Step 3: Selection of suppliers

Since there are many providers of AGVs and AMRs, we have to decide which ones we are interested in. In a first filter we demand the following requirements:

  • The product supplied by the provider complies with the regulations of all the countries where we have factories. Thus we overcome the second obstacle mentioned previously.

  • The provider has previous experience working in the regions where we have factories (for example, Southeast Asia or South America).

  • The provider can supply the different types of mobile robots that we need for our first flow, as well as for the following ones. For example: in our first flow we are going to move a pallet and in the second a cart.

  • The provider has the capacity to manufacture, install and maintain all the mobile robots that we will need in the future.

The second filter will consist of a technical and economic assessment of the providers and their products. The output of this second filter must be of at least two providers in order to minimize the potential risk of dependence on them.

Step 4: Pilot projects

The two selected providers will carry out two pilot projects of the first flow in the factories mentioned above. The objectives of this Step 4 are the following:

  • To validate of the design of the application and/or propose improvements to it.

  • To Have two successful experiences in the company.

  • To validate the potential of the two providers.

Step 5: Roll out

Next, we are going to repeat this first project in the rest of the factories. For this step it is important to take into account:

  • Training is key for staff to get involved in the project and therefore to guarantee the automation is succesful. The more trained the staff, the more confident they will feel.

  • It is important that the staff of each plant have visited the pilot projects so that confidence is generated once again.

With the first automated flow, we will repeat this entire process successively, thus increasing our level of automation. Bear in mind that we will most likely never be able to automate all flows in all factories, but we will have managed to drastically reduce the operating costs of our internal logistics.

And if you have come this far and wonder why I have written all this, the reason is that I can bring you a lot of value in this adventure of automation. For this reason, I have marked in bold those parts where my contribution can be most important.