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Autonomous Technology Leans into Logistics

Diane Sacra, Director of Marketing, Universal Logistics Holdings, Inc.
Diane Sacra, Director of Marketing, Universal Logistics Holdings, Inc.

Diane Sacra, Director of Marketing, Universal Logistics Holdings, Inc.

It’s like something out of a sci-fi movie or a post-industrial revolution novel – the machines are taking over. While it’s not quite as dramatic as such works of fiction, there is some real truth to autonomous robotics continuing to advance many different industries. Logistics tops this list.

In a marketplace in which manufacturers and other product-based organizations are under continual pressure to reduce waste and costs from their supply chains, it’s no surprise that automated machinery is finding its way into places like the warehouse at an increasing rate and in new, innovative ways.

“Automation is key in today’s logistics landscape,” said Clinton Sieber, Vice President of Lean Solutions at Universal Logistics Holdings, Inc., headquartered in Metro Detroit, Michigan. “If you aren’t looking for areas in your warehouse operations where you can automate right now, you are going to be left behind.”

​ The payoff of automation has been quite worth it to Universal as it continues to embrace Lean processes  

Sieber knows firsthand of what he speaks. Universal is a leading third party logistics provider that services a large number of Fortune 500 manufacturers and retailers/e-tailers with their warehousing and additional value-added needs. The company has been piloting and increasing its use of automated equipment, including Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs), and Autonomous Guided Vehicles/Visual Guided Vehicles (AGVs/VGVs) over the past few years in order to streamline processes and improve operational efficiencies.

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“We began piloting the use of AGVs to handle repetitive, long-distance material movesat our logistics centers.” Sieber said. “The results have been quite successful, allowing us to redeploy our human talent elsewhere within our operations to solve more complex issues and handle more challenging tasks. Overall, the use of automated material handling systems have been nothing but promising and we are continuing to integrate the technology throughout our organization where it makes sense.”

One of the reasons Universal has enjoyed success with its pilot programs in automated material handling systems is attributed to its AccuLinc Warehouse Management System (WMS). Universal purposely built its proprietary WMS and has continued to enhance it over the past decade to integrate seamlessly with all of the most common customer platforms – and now also with automation-related equipment, such as AMRs.

According to Lee Weisenberger, Director of Information Technology at Universal, the deployment of AMR and VGV units has caused enhancements to the company’s WMS system, but it was not nearly as complex of a task as he originally anticipated.

“The AMRs and VGVs have been actually quite simple for us to integrate with AccuLinc, given our system’s architecture was built for expansion all along,” Weisenberger said. “Truthfully, the bigger challenge we have faced as we integrated these new robotics into our warehouses was getting our human talent acclimated to cohabitating with our robotics.”

Sieber agrees. “Getting our teams used to working with robotics and even basic safety issues, like forklift traffic being managed while we have robots zipping around doing their jobs, was where we had to take extra care to make sure our outcomes were successful.”

Sieber said that additional training, including safety training, with leadership and line-level warehouse workers was provided. In addition, Universal ensured they involved their team members early on in their pilot programs, as well as provided an environment of open communication to reduce the learning curve process. The company even had some fun with the process, giving employees the chance to name the robots via an internal contest. Names from pop culture icons like Star Wars and the Flintstones were among favorite choices.

The payoff of automation has been quite worth it to Universal as it continues to embrace Lean processes. “Lean operations philosophy is to create value for our clients by continuously identifying and eliminating waste,” said Sieber. “Long material moves have been an easy target for this.” Sieber continued to explain that the use of AGVs/VGVs has made it possible for Universal to create dedicated pick aisles for employees so that the resulting day’s work is faster and more accurate. Moreover, it has eliminated the need for forklift drivers to make long, repetitive runs multiple times a day, saving time and costs.

Weisenberger indicates that Universal continues to plan additional automated pilots. “We are currently in process with a very large scale pilot program with VGVs at a million-plus square foot facility. With continued success, we foresee a day in the not-too-distant future when all of our value-added services locations have some degree of automated material handling as part of the core processes.” In addition, both Seiber and Weisenberger anticipate a day when their warehouses will be constructed around automation from the start as this new technology allows for more narrow aisles and condensed storage.

As technology, and specifically autonomous equipment, continues to evolve and develop within the marketplace, Universal plans to take advantage of the technological advancements in order to keep its logistical solutions as lean and as effective as possible.

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