Autonomous vehicles already improving supply chain operations

Ehsan Khodabandeh PhD Operations Research Scientist
Read Time: 3 minutes apprx.

Mike Watson recently shared his insights on the impacts of driverless trucks on the network design and supply chain operations (here and here and here). If you are still suspicious about the effects of using self-driving vehicles, there are actually live use cases that can be found within many of the world’s supply chains today.

Take for example, Amazon’s Kiva Robots. The use of these robots has proven to increase order picking efficiency by cutting the time operators need to travel around the warehouse to find the product. How does this work? Well, converse to typical warehouse pick procedures which involve traveling to each shelf and selecting the appropriate amounts of each product, these robots bring the shelves to the operators and queue themselves up in order to allow the operator to pick and pack the order without moving anywhere. Think of it this way, these robots are really automated guided vehicles (AGV) that don’t require a driver. So, in a sense, they are self-driving vehicles! Just like many who worry about the safety of self-driving vehicles on roads you may already be wondering how these robots avoid crashing into warehouse shelving or even each other. These robots are actually programmed to follow pre-defined routes and are equipped with sensors that help them navigate through the aisles and avoid crashing into one another.

Image Source: http://static4.businessinsider.com/image/56296350bd86ef14008c41a1-480/a-kiva-robot-moves-a-rack-of-merchandise-at-an-amazon-fulfillment-center-on-january-20-2015-in-tracy-california.jpg

While the use of these robots is not new for Amazon, as they started using Kiva in fulfillment centers in 2014, this story highlights the major advantages driverless vehicles can create. In addition to the resultant cost savings attributed to using these robots, we should highlight many of the other side benefits as well. For example, operators no longer need to bend, lift heavy product, or extend their arms to reach high shelves which often has resulted in work-related injuries in the past. The order picking is also much faster and more error-proof as operators don’t need to manually search for the orders themselves. This decreases the number of returned orders which can be quite costly but also simultaneously improves overall efficiencies and productivity.

You may think it is normal for a company like Amazon to take the lead in investing in this type of technology but other companies are following quite quickly. Take John Deere for example. Last year, the company made plans to begin using its own fleet of new-generation AGVs to assist along their assembly line. John Deere points out that these new AGVs use the same sensor-driven, high-computing backbone that Google uses in its self-driving car. A step up from the Kiva robots Amazon implemented, these new robots require less space to move around and much less guidance and supervision. This is another nice use case highlighting the continued growth of autonomous vehicles being used in environments populated by operators and equipment while continually performing the safe and efficient transport of goods.

Take Away

Warehouses and manufacturing plants are already benefiting greatly from the use of autonomous vehicles. Although debates on the safety of driverless vehicles to carry people along our nation’s highways continue on, I’m positive that routine advancements in this space will continue to push the feasibility side of this while also ensuring safety and public buy in sooner than most people think.