As you may have discovered in our recent blog post Warehouse Robotics: Everything You Need to Know, there are several types of automation technology that make warehouse robotics and the many benefits they unlock possible.
Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), goods-to-person (G2P) technology, automated guided vehicles (AGVs), automated guided carts (AGCs), autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), articulated robotic arms, pick-to-light systems and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are all commonly found in warehouse environments serving multiple industry sectors. And whilst all share a common purpose of increasing productivity, efficiency and throughput across these industrial environments, each and every one of these types of automation has its own pros and cons.
Automation has a long and rather complex history globally. The term ‘automation’ was first thought to be coined back in the 1940s. Since then the technologies that fall into this category have undergone radical development to become the useful, pioneering machines they are today. Nowadays, the robotics industry is responsible for an exciting range of technologies, which make selecting the right automated systems for the job within your own organisation particularly tricky.
Understanding the various types of automation available to and suitable for your industry sector is the key, and so too is getting to grips with the pros and cons of automation. Read on to discover the advantages and disadvantages of each automation technology type and become one step closer to finding the right robotics solution for your organisation.
Various Automation Types and Their Pros and Cons
Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) pros and cons
Let’s start our pros and cons of automation with a commonly used system. Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) include but are not limited to mini-load systems, carousels, cranes, robotic shuttles, and vertical buffer and lift modules.
AS/RS use pre-determined tracks to navigate the warehouse successfully and are connected to a warehouse management system for direction. In terms of labour, AS/RS provide great solutions for those looking to keep costs down and also counter staff shortages. Expansion is also made simple with AS/RS in place, with scalability easy to achieve without new hires, and existing workers able to be redeployed to other value-added activities to strengthen operations further.
Like other types of automation, the use of AS/RS promises to enhance safety, accuracy, productivity and efficiency, reducing the human errors that can often slow production down. Whilst used in small and large scale facilities alike, one of the primary advantages of this automated system is that it requires very little space. AS/RS can operate well even in narrow aisles and at height to ensure better and safer use of space and resources vertically and throughout high-risk areas. There are also various module options for AS/RS, enabling organisations new to this automation technology to integrate it into their operations as slowly or quickly as they like.
Despite their ability to be modular, investment in AS/RS remains high, with the initial cost of such equipment more expensive in the short term. AS/RS also require regular maintenance and occasional repair to do what they do best. Technical skills and retraining is likely to be required too to guarantee the safe handling and management of your new systems. AS/RS are better suited to the repetitive, predictable tasks that many types of automation are used for, which can restrict their deployment in highly variable warehouse operations.
Goods-to-person (G2P) technology pros and cons
Goods-to-person or G2P technology is one automated solution that has undergone major development within warehouse and distribution operations in recent years. The robotics industry has been busy nurturing the collaborative approach to strengthen the partnership between human workers and robots. G2P technology is one of the many types of automation to result from this progression.
Once only suitable for specific applications, G2P technology and the types of automation it delivers is now rapidly evolving and its use expanding across many industry sectors to increase service levels dramatically.
G2P technology uses automation to deliver the correct item or stock keeping unit (SKU) to the right operative or workstation at exactly the right time. When discussing the pros and cons of automation via G2P technology, a primary advantage is just how time-efficient increasing collaboration between workers and robots is.
With the use of G2P technology, productivity, throughput and labour utilisation can all be enhanced. Human workers will spend less time walking and searching for the required items with the right goods delivered straight to their workstation instead. Organisations can in turn reduce labour costs and utilise their existing staff better, with large scale facilities even able to be negotiated at speed by G2P technology.
Bringing the rest of your operation up to speed is one challenge many G2P technology adopters face, especially when using G2P for its primary purpose – high speed picking. Operations must be optimised from end-to-end to guarantee the product movement and streamlined systems that keep up with the capabilities of G2P technology.
Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) pros and cons
Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are one of the most established types of automation in our pros and cons of automation guide. Whilst they don’t require an on-board operator or human driver, they do need fixed, predefined paths to operate as well as pre-programmed software to determine their direction and purpose. There are a number of pros and cons of automation with AGVs.
The increased safety automated guided vehicles deliver is second to none. Instead of being reliant on human drivers, AGVs move along a specific path to minimise the risk of collisions and associated damage or personal injury. The accuracy made possible by most AGV models also paves the way for reduced error rates across warehouses and their production lines. Without a human driver at the helm, an AGV can transport more cargo. Their lack of driver also means AGVs can operate for long hours to keep production going and minimise downtime, including in extreme or hazardous conditions. AGVs even return back to their charging points automatically as their battery charge depletes!
AGVs are scalable and easy to integrate thanks to their Internet of Things (IoT) status. But as you’ll discover further down this list of pros and cons, they are not as scalable as other types of automation.
Due to the need for external infrastructure, AGVs are less flexible than other types of automation. They are also best suited to repetitive tasks, with unexpected obstacles or challenges causing AGVs to literally stop in their tracks. Whilst their IoT status is great for integration, this virtual connectivity can leave the wider warehouse management operation vulnerable. Software features and physical components need to be continuously monitored and maintained to reduce risk. AGVs are costly to purchase and install requiring infrastructure, supervision, maintenance and staff training to succeed in their respective industries.
Automated guided carts (AGCs) pros and cons
Automated guided carts or AGCs can fall into the AGV or autonomous mobile robot (AMR) category depending on the type of navigation they rely on. An AGC is however defined by the modest chassis and low profile that allows it to engage with carts and shelves from underneath. Whether classed as an AGV or AMR, each guided cart has its own pros and cons of automation.
On the whole, automated guided carts are more affordable than other types of automation. They increase safety whilst providing autonomous loading capabilities without the human intervention that can slow productivity down. AGCs are great for facilities where space is at a premium too.
Due to their small chassis, the load capacity of an AGC is more limited than other types of automation. Speed is also not an AGC’s strong point, especially when compared with other AMRs and AGVs. In order to integrate automated guided carts successfully, infrastructural changes may need to take place. The carts and shelves an AGC engages with could need adaptation at additional cost.
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) pros and cons
Unlike other types of automation such as AGVs and line-guided AGCs, autonomous mobile robots or AMRs aren’t restricted by external infrastructure. Thanks to on-board sensors, laser-based perception and navigation algorithms, AMRs can move freely and dynamically throughout facilities infrastructure-free. This alone unlocks many advantages in our pros and cons of automation rundown.
Without hard set paths, AMRs can be easily adapted to meet the latest market demands and operational protocols. In addition to being extremely scalable, this flexibility extends to their redeployment. AMRs are able to tackle new tasks with very little time and effort spent on reprogramming. Thanks to their ease of deployment, introducing AMRs to a facility takes very little time at all, with most able to be implemented in weeks.
The machine learning capabilities AMRs harness also put safety first. AMRs can manoeuvre safely around unexpected obstacles, and are fully automated and unmanned to further safeguard the workforce, infrastructure and products they transport.
Whilst specialists like us are working to bring the initial investment down to a level that is accessible to everyone, the cost of introducing AMRs is generally higher than other types of automation. With this, AMRs should be utilised via the right applications.
AMRs are designed to reduce travel time for human workers, and increase efficiency and productivity massively as a result. AMRs are now capable of handling heavy duty cargo with some able to handle a 1900kg payload.
Pick-to-light is a way of picking orders for warehouses and distribution hubs where they use lights and LEDs on racks or shelves to indicate the pick location. Lights direct operators to the correct parts and quantities, in the correct sequential steps, as required for the active bill of materials (BOM)” (or to complete the order, if we’re talking about warehouse and distribution facilities.)
The main advantages of a pick-to-light system is the fast speeds they work at, they are highly accurate and they are hands free and paperless. They are evolving all the time and getting more efficient.
One considered disadvantage is the initial outlay for the equipment but this can be clawed back over a short period of time by the increased productivity and accuracy.
Articulated robotic arms pros and cons
When compared to other types of automation, articulated robotic arms are as precise as they come. Thanks to this accuracy, this robot type can deliver optimum results across a range of applications, including those requiring a more dexterous approach. Articulated robotic arms are also fast, efficient, and able to work the hours and in the conditions that human workers cannot to boost productivity and minimise downtime.
The use of articulated robotic arms has seen the reassignment of human workers to more rewarding roles to improve working conditions and job satisfaction as a whole.
Whilst automated, articulated robotic arms do need continuous monitoring to ensure success. They will also never be the creative and free-thinking additions that human workers are, making them unsuitable for many applications. Instead robotic arms use pre-programmed settings to fulfil their specific roles.
Robotic arms require routine maintenance and repair to ensure optimum output, with additional training needed to gain the technical knowledge that will help them work as effectively as possible. The prospect of job losses caused by robotic arms and other types of automation is another disadvantage that is impacting organisations and their workers across all industries. The emergence of collaborative robots however is helping robots and humans to work together and achieve better outcomes for the settings they serve.
Unmanned aerial vehicles pros and cons
We’ll finish our pros and cons of automation guide with a look at the unmanned aerial vehicles that are becoming common sights around the world and throughout numerous industry sectors. Known more widely as drones, unmanned aerial vehicles are helping organisations take to the skies to achieve the very best operational results.
Drones have already proven their worth in the logistics, agricultural and exploration sectors, as well as within industries that handle hazardous tasks. They’ve also delivered excellent results in the mapping of areas thanks to their use of GPS and on-board visuals.
The dangers that drones present to air traffic and the general public however are major concerns. As a relatively new technology, there is a lack of regulation within the field, an issue that could invade privacy and even be dangerous in the wrong hands. The handling and flying of drones also requires training and could result in potential insurance problems for those using them industrially or commercially.
Summary and Conclusion: Automation
As specialists in cutting edge types of automation, we are well versed in their pros and cons, and communicate these benefits and challenges transparently to our customers. Here at Guidance Automation, our specialism in autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) is what sets us, and the organisations we assist, apart.
We provide the support, expertise and technology you need to unlock your automation potential, with our free AMR trial a great, no obligation way to discover just what AMRs can do for your organisation.