Working Towards Lights Out Automation | AHS

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Working Towards Lights Out Automation | AHS

Defining the Lights Out Automation Concept

Forty-two years ago, I started working for a very large consumer-goods manufacturer, and I clearly remember sitting in a meeting and discussing “lights out manufacturing”. The concept of a lights out manufacturing facility was evolving, and processes to achieve this were gradually improving. As the development in technology became more sophisticated, the ability to manufacture complex items without human intervention eventually became common practice.

FIGURE 1, EXOTEC GOODS-TO-PERSON SYSTEM

Exotec Goods to Person System's storage racks, storage bins, and robots that bring the bins to the order preparation workstation
The Exotec Skypod System is an automated storage and order preparation system. The Skypod Robots can climb the multi-level storage racks and move three dimensionally to retrieve storage bins.

A couple of years later I entered the world of material handling. Consultants and very progressive companies launched initiatives to define and create “lights out” for the fulfillment and distribution sector to benefit in the same manner as the manufacturing industry. That was in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and even at the turn of the millennium, the question remained, “Would it be possible to process work in distribution facilities without people, and have a true lights out distribution facility?”

Lights Out Automation Technology

What has seeking lights out automation provided along the way? It has driven labor out of the pick process by eliminating waste such as walking, and we are now addressing the other aspect of the pick process by automating the task time related to selecting the appropriate item. Advancements are being made regarding automated trailer unloading and loading. On-demand packing is driving efficiencies in numerous ways but ultimately eliminating the need for human intervention. The evolution of goods-to-person to goods-to-robot (Figure 2), usage of autonomous mobile robots (AMR) (Figure 3), huge gains in vision technology and software, as well as AI and deep learning has all spawned out of the search for lights out.

FIGURE 2, GOODS-TO-PERSON VS. GOODS-TO-ROBOT

Goods to person system utilizing a human picker vs the goods to robot utilizing a robotic picker
This figure depicts the Exotec Skypod System which, as stated in Figure 1, is a an automated storage and order preparation system. After retrieving the bin, the Skypod Robot takes the bin to the workstation to be picked. The semi-manual process relies on the Skypod Robots to retrieve the bins as well as a human picker who grabs the item from the bin and places it in the proper order bin. The advancement of technology and the continued effort to reach lights out automation has resulted in the Exotec Skypicker. The Skypicker completely replaces the need for a human picker. It is equipped with an articulating arm and can simultaneously prepare four orders.

Lights Out Automation Challenges

While we have developed the technology and created automation for specific areas within a facility, the key to all of this is centered around integration. What does that mean? Metaphorically, it means taking the individual, automated puzzle pieces and fitting them together to form a completed puzzle, giving you a clear image. The ultimate end game is to make sure that each automated piece within a facility compliments and interfaces appropriately with each other thus forming a cohesive, automated solution.

Despite tremendous gains in technology, we have not completely solved the puzzle. This is due, in part, to many factors including day-to-day operations, capital requirements, technology advancements, environmental and cultural change, etcetera. Those continuing the effort to blend technologies to create a lights out warehouse or distribution facility should be embraced and supported in every way to encourage this growth. We will all benefit from it.

The question remains, “Are we at a point where we can truly accomplish a lights out distribution facility or warehouse?" In reality, plans do not always go as expected. These complex technologies consist of electro-mechanical components that are assembled into a working system which requires maintenance. This poses a challenge because self-repairing equipment does not currently exist to my knowledge. Lights out distribution facilities are rigid, and they like consistency. In fulfillment, things change rapidly on a day-to-day and season-to-season basis. With such rapid changes, human intervention is often required to perform tasks such as training robots or updating software. All of these challenges need to be considered when thinking about the practicality of achieving a facility with lights out automation.

Implementing An Automated Facility and Achieving Lights Out

FIGURE 3, AMRS FOR PALLET TRANSPORT

Two types of autonomous mobile robots used for unmanned pallet transportation in lights out warehouse facilities
Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) are self-driving collaborative vehicles that navigate around people and objects without the need of a track. The flexibility of AMRs is endless. Interchangeable top modules allow for materials of different shapes and sizes. By using AMRs for automated pallet transport, employees' time can be repurposed from point-to-point transportation to focus on more value-added operations.

The MiR1000 (shown on the left) transports loads up to 1000kg. It navigates autonomously and chooses the most efficient route to the destination. The Nipper (shown on the right) autonomously transports loads up to 1000kg as well and can navigate through narrow spaces.

It starts with data, accurate forecasts, and a detailed understanding of what the result needs to satisfy. Cohesive solutions require definitive criteria that define the “why?”, and without it, we should not even start the effort. The adage of “bad data in – bad result” is significantly more important in the search for a lights out warehouse. Simply put, automation is not flexible when trying to eliminate all humans from the equation, which ironically, is the intended purpose of automation. Therefore, the data and forecasts MUST be correct going in. Read the 16 Essential Warehouse KPIs that you should be tracking.

Once the data has been analyzed, and the design criteria has been established, it is imperative that an agreement is reached, top to bottom, within the organization that is undertaking the effort. Engage the design team, and review in detail the expectations of the effort. The next step is to develop the functional requirements document in which the overall effort will be defined. Upon completion, another round of approvals must be achieved. The effort will fail if buy-in and complete understanding is unclear.

The Importance of a Robotic Integrator

Most companies other than the behemoths do not have the resources to integrate the various systems on their own. If the desire is truly a lights out automation warehouse or facility, it is necessary to partner with a robotic integrator that is experienced in all automated “puzzle pieces”. A robotic integrator is a company that designs, engineers, and integrates all the individual puzzle pieces to form a unified process. 

FIGURE 4, CAJA ROBOTIC SYSTEM

CAJA Robotics' goods to person system includes the Cart and Lift robots
CAJA Robotics' two types of specialized robots work synergistically to optimize the goods-to-person system. As the Lift robot can reach high and the Cart robot can move fast, each of them is assigned suitable tasks to constantly move bins between workstations and shelves.

Summary

In summary, the desire to achieve lights out manufacturing has revolutionized the way we view production and the movement of goods. In turn, the quest to achieve lights out automation has benefitted the distribution and fulfillment sectors of the supply chain. It will continue to drive lower costs, faster response times, and higher accuracy rates which will benefit both the seller/distributor and customer. The question of pursuing a lights out distribution facility is an individual choice. It comes with risk, but, with the help of an experienced integrator to successfully implement, great reward. 

 

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