Autonomous Planning



Autonomous planning is increasingly being embraced as a supply chain solution to augment the ongoing worker shortage.

Requiring a closed-loop planning approach utilizing a fully automated technology platform, autonomously integrated systems have the ability to oversee and control supply chains from end to end, using data and technology to plan even before orders are placed. Autonomous planning also requires moving past just the technology to include the processes and people involved.

Chris Morgan, senior director of research and development at MHI member Bastian Solutions, said industry stakeholders would be well-served to review order data and stock-keeping unit (SKU) patterns to deduce the quickest route to optimize fulfillment.

This process generally includes the incorporation of two types of information: pre-determined data based upon historical records, and dynamic weighted decisions based upon product migration and traffic patterns in the environment.

While predictive analytics takes advantage of this knowledge and creates patterns, artificial intelligence (AI) can be used in real-time and post process the data for later use. This can be done at the warehouse management system (WMS), warehouse executions system (WES), or warehouse control system (WCS), as well as at the robotics level with autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and automated guided vehicles (AGVs).

Morgan explained that the WES can send down the request for the order and the WMC and WCS can study the pattern and optimize from there. The AMR can then negotiate the route based upon traffic changes it sees or is given by other AMRs or through updates from the WMS or WCS.

“These methods allow for real-time optimization of a product location, throughput and AMR traffic management based upon logic patterns and business rules set by the WES/WMS,” Morgan explained. “Because technology is advancing so quickly, we are now able to take in more inputs from our robots, AMRs and conveyors using IOT, thus allowing us to make more intelligent decisions in the cloud and at the AMR.”

“You are optimizing the timing that it takes for singular or multiple vehicles to provide picking,” Morgan said, “and, obviously, we have a labor shortage, so that is why now is the time to augment human capital as much as possible through autonomous vehicles.”

If there was previously human capital in the location replaced with autonomous activity, Morgan emphasized the need to ensure the autonomous vehicle works as well, if not better, than the previously manned operation, whether this action makes use of AGVs, AMRs, Autonomous Guided Fork Trucks (AGFs), Mobile Robotic Pickers (MRPs), Autonomous Case Handling Robots (ACRs) or Autonomous Robotic Shuttles (ARSs).

“Obviously, you don’t want to slow down the supply chain,” Morgan said, noting that predictive analytics are being utilized in the space to be able to understand where a vehicle is, and where it is in relation to multiple vehicles that may share the floor—with the end goal being the fastest path to pick, and also to optimize the supply chain.

These predictive analytics are fluidly able to extrapolate trending and seasonal optimization.

“If you have a lot of Christmas supplies at the start of the November term for Christmastime, you would want to try to move those supplies forward as close as possible to help you optimize your supply chain in the middle, whether you are pulling it off of racks or pallets or trucks, so that you have the best route, the fastest route and the most optimized route to pick the product,” Morgan said. “It also allows you to know how efficiently the vehicles are working on the floor and where your high traffic areas are.”

Augmenting, not replacing, human capital

“Having advanced analytics and predictive analytics gives us an understanding of the footprint,” Morgan explained. “With the labor shortage, the why of it today is because you really want these units to augment, not replace, human capital, because your labor is very mission critical to success.”

Morgan emphasized the need to have employees working in roles where humans are most highly needed in nonrepetitive, more high-value tasks, while AGVs and AMRs streamline recurring operations.

“When you augment human capital with AGVs or AMRs, you will not necessarily displace those folks, but you will actually help bring the products to them,” Morgan said. “The fastest way to route all of that is by using some type of predictive analytics to get in front of it, studying it over time and making some historical predictions that then allow operations for managers to be able to optimize their throughput and best utilize the devices to get the most efficient plan.”

More and more, AI is being added to route planning to increase efficiencies and gains.

“I will see a specific table of routes over time and I will run it through AI,” Morgan said, noting Bastian Solutions’ role as a supply chain integration partner committed to providing clients with a competitive advantage. “Then I will actually be able to pull out the most effective paths and train the robots effectively on those to make decisions inherently in place to even further optimize that route planning.”

High visibility also is important in the overall realm of autonomous planning. Similar to hailing an Uber via your mobile phone or ordering dinner online through GrubHub, Morgan emphasized the importance of supply chain partners being able to visibly check in to see where desired service or goods are in the moment.

“It is important to see where your routes are at all times in case you need to redirect or there is a change in the middle,” Morgan explained. “Being able to see what is going on effectively not only allows the user to intentionally make decisions about what is happening on the floor, but they can also call an audible and say, ‘We need to reroute that truck because I need this other product.’”

“Visibility gives the user the ability to make decisions,” Morgan said, noting that oftentimes this is being handled in the background via user interface (UI) or human machine interface (HMI) that may be hard to read and understand. “Also, visibility is in the actual data itself as it produces to effectively draw reports back to you so that you can make better decisions on what’s happening on the floor.

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