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Collaborative Robots Drive Supply Chain Innovations
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November 9, 2022 Blog

Authored By: James McKew, Regional President APAC Universal Robots 

Supply chains in Asia Pacific are undergoing a fundamental shift. Although countries have gradually overcome the negative impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has stemmed during the past two years, the strain placed on supply chains continues to make headline news. The ongoing geopolitical uncertainty further exacerbated challenges, including semiconductor shortages, labour crises and equipment availability. Worse, increased order volumes and quicker delivery expectations from consumers deepen the impact on the already fragile supply chain.

As distribution centres, fulfillment centres and other warehousing facilities are bearing the responsibility to dampen the existing challenges, it is a necessity for businesses to rethink their supply chain strategies. The handling of increased speed and complexity has always accorded competitive advantages to logistics operations. In addition, as e-commerce opens doors to consumers shopping for more products online, supply chains across Asia Pacific are easing into a new pace of order fulfillment.

Despite the many technologies embraced in supply chains, traditional robots were deemed unsuitable for warehouse environments. Factors like disruptive safety fencing, slow deployments, high costs and inability to automate more than one task, kept automation benefits away from industries. Now, collaborative robots (or “cobots”) arose from the need to overcome the shortcomings of traditional industrial robots. In this challenging landscape, cobots are the key to driving supply chain innovations.

Adapting to a Different Recruitment Landscape

Labour shortages are challenging even for the most well-resourced businesses. The next generation of operators is prioritising job satisfaction and career advancement prospects over remuneration. In the supply chain industry where manual work is deemed to be mandatory, poor retention rates often become a threat to businesses, worsening manpower shortages.

“Although countries have gradually overcome the negative impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has stemmed during the past two years, the strain placed on supply chains continues to make headline news. The ongoing geopolitical uncertainty further exacerbated challenges, including semiconductor shortages, labour crises and equipment availability.”

One rapidly growing company that solved its labour shortage with cobots is DCL Logistics. As a full-service fulfillment and logistics company, DCL provides everything from direct-to-consumer fulfillment, business-to-retail fulfillment and other value-added services. Their business has grown dramatically alongside the e-commerce surge, and they needed a technology solution to maximise their workers’ productivity. After the deployment of Universal Robots’ cobots, DCL Logistics realised 50% labour savings and a 500% efficiency improvement, a three months return on investment (ROI) and 100% order accuracy.

Introducing a Safe and Collaborative Companion

Cobots are designed to work with people, serving as perfect companions for human workers and not replacing them. After an initial risk assessment, most cobots do not require disruptive safety fencing or cumbersome safety protocols for employees. Cobots can also work alongside people, allowing for tasks such as moving goods to a picker, scanning, labelling, palletising or packaging to be done collaboratively. Whether alleviating a worker from their most repetitive tasks or collaborating with someone in a work cell, cobots optimise productivity through human-machine pairing. Once a cobot had automated repetitive, low-skill or unsafe tasks, workers are freed up to pursue their most value-added jobs around the warehouse.

Streamlining Procurement Processes

When e-commerce boom and warehouse demand soar, operators generally struggle to keep up with the sourcing of components. One way automation delivers value is by meeting or exceeding human throughput in whatever cell it operates. Traditional robots meet this need by using complex end-effectors to automate only one task, and they rely on a high volume and low mix of parts to speed up production. Conversely, cobots offer the balance of high-volume automation with the flexibility of deploying one robot to multiple applications in a single day.

For instance, the UR+ ecosystem supports an entire suite of plug-and-play tooling, allowing one cobot to quickly utilise different scanners, grippers, range extenders and autonomous moving vehicles, as a warehouse’s needs change. This streamlined procurement of components speeds up proof-of-concept time as companies begin to automate, and helps to reduce recurrent engineering once cobots are running programs.

“One way automation delivers value is by meeting or exceeding human throughput in whatever cell it operates. Traditional robots meet this need by using complex end-effectors to automate only one task, and they rely on a high volume and low mix of parts to speed up production.”

Consumer demands are driving a new precedent in the retail industry with the need to build agility throughout the supply chain. Competitive fulfillment centres need to scale up the sophistication of processes, the speed of order fulfilment, and the development and retention of their talent pool. Cobots are adding value to a human workforce, and leading supply chain professionals are rapidly scaling up collaborative automation to increase value from their workers and facilities. While supply chain leaders continue to be confronted with challenges moving forward, the introduction of collaborative automation will potentially help solve problems and promise a resilient supply chain.

 

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