Omron Adept’s mobile robots are already hard at work in warehouses around the world, but as sales increase, lithium ion battery transport regulations are becoming more strict up and more air cargo carriers are refusing to carry them.
The business of robot manufacturer Omron Adept Technologies Inc. is doubly interesting for American Shipper readers.
The mobile robots the company makes are already hard at work in warehouses around the world, and their use seems destined to grow as the weight of payloads they can transport increases.
And at the same time Omron Adept is expecting to move greater quantities of its mobile robots as sales increase, regulation of the transportation of lithium ion batteries is ramping up and more air carriers are refusing to carry them.
Diverse Base. Headquartered in Kyoto, Japan, Omron Corp., Omron Adept’s parent company, is a diversified electronics manufacturer that reported annual sales of 794 billion yen (U.S. $7.1 billion) in its fiscal year that ended March 31.
You may very well be familiar with their health care products—they make about half the home-use blood pressure monitors sold worldwide.
But Omron also sells finished products and services to a wide range of industries.
These include industrial automation equipment, electronic and mechanical components used in automobiles, backlights for smartphones, ticket reading and vending machines used in mass transit systems, and inverters for photovoltaic power.
In 2015, Omron acquired Adept Technology Inc., a San Ramon, Calif.-based manufacturer of robotic solutions and services. Adept makes a variety of robots—so-called “SCARA” robots, articulated robots, and parallel robots—that are generally fixed in place. The capabilities of these machines are well documented in You Tube videos, including one of its parallel robots playing an impressive game of ping pong.
And Omron Adept also sells LD Series Mobile Robots. Adept Technology got into the mobile robot business back in 2010 when it purchased New Hampshire-based Mobile Robots, which was doing research in the field.
“We saw the huge opportunity in the commercial environment,” said Terry Hannon, the chief manufacturing and supply chain officer at Omron Adept. “We took that technology and developed robots that are industrially viable, things that work in the 24/7 environment, that are completely hands free, that don’t require any expensive infrastructure to deploy them.”
opportunity in the commercial
environment. We took that
technology and developed
robots that are industrially
viable, things that work in the
24/7 environment, that are
completely hands free, that
don’t require any expensive
infrastructure to deploy them.” – Terry Hannon,
chief manufacturing and supply chain
officer, Omron Adept
The LD Series robots are basically mobile platforms that can be deployed in factories and warehouses to transport products. Unlike some other robots, they do not need wires, tapes, floor magnets, or navigational beacons to be installed.
The robots can run for at least 13 hours with a full payload and can be recharged in about three hours. Some customers buy spare batteries and switch them out every 12 hours, so the machines can run around the clock. Those batteries are designed to have a life of five to seven years.
Hannon notes that the key to making the LD Series robots work is the software that controls their routing and other activities, sending them to a charging station when their batteries run low, for example.
Omron Adept’s “enterprise manager” software system can actively control an entire fleet of more than 100 robots with a single controller.
“This technology is really 80 or 90 percent about the software,” said Hannon. Over the past 15 years, the company has developed a “mountain of software” that gives the LD Series robots “capabilities, capacity and the ability to work in a safe environment,” he said.
Flexible Automation. Omron Adept works with integrator partners to customize its robots to meet the needs of buyers. Atop the mobile base, they may add shelves to hold various orders being “picked” in a warehouse, an automatic conveyor so totes or boxes can be rolled on and off factory equipment, or even mechanical arms.
And the kinds of places where the company’s robots are deployed are “all over the map,” said Hannon.
For example, the LD Series robots are used in “fabs,” factories that fabricate semiconductors, moving silicon wafers from machine to machine, each of which performs a different part of the manufacturing process. At each machine in the fab, the robot uses arms to remove a wafer pod that has completed a manufacturing process, replace it with another wafer pod, and then bring the completed wafer to the machine that will perform the next step in the process.
“All of this is controlled by an overall architecture, called the enterprise manager, which controls an entire fleet of robots to operate in a given environment,” Hannon explained.
One of Omron’s Adept’s biggest customers in terms of its mobile robots is a semiconductor manufacturer located in Singapore. The robots are ideal in such a facility because they are clean, don’t make mistakes, and don’t drop the fragile wafers.
Until now, most automated factories have depended on machines that are linked together with, for example, belts or overhead conveyors.
Companies are now moving away from this kind of fixed automation to flexible automation, so machines no longer have to be broken apart and rebuilt when a product or process changes.
“They want to have individual, discrete manufacturing or assembly areas that can be joined somehow,” said Hannon. Instead of moving product between manufacturing stations with fixed conveyors or people pushing carts, “mobile robots are now the new thing, the glue, to join these different subassembly areas or machines.”
Flexible automation is a logical fit for manufacturing of many consumer goods in that these products are frequently redesigned. With mobile robots, factories can be more easily altered by adding new equipment or changing the workflow from machine to machine.
Mobile robots are also being used more widely in the logistics industry, and that is expected to increase as they are upgraded to carry heavier loads. Today, they are able to move payloads weighing about 130 kilograms (285 pounds), but Hannon said Omron Adept is “developing next generation vehicles that will be pallet level.”
In warehouses where orders are picked and packed, mobile robots can be used to assist employees doing the actual picking of products. The picker can retrieve an item, put it in a tray or box on the robot, and go to the next item on their pick list while the robot goes off in another direction to meet another picker who will complete the order or to the packing location.
“There’s no time wasted with having the person push a cart to the packing location and then going back into the warehouse,” explained Hannon.
Since the same computer system can give instructions to both the robot and the warehouse worker—sometimes on a wearable computer—the work of each is coordinated and optimized. The allocation of work makes sense, according to Hannon, because the actual picking of products, which may come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and textures, requires both visual acuity and dexterity and is therefore well suited to humans, while the robots can travel long distances faster and without tiring.
And the mobile robots must be adaptable. If one aisle is blocked by a worker, another machine or a piece of debris, for example, the robot will find another route to get to its destination.
Improving Safety. Hannon says robots have the potential to make warehouses much safer workplaces.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, improper operation of “powered industrial trucks,” which includes equipment such as forklifts and pallet jacks, caused 79 fatalities and 10,910 injuries requiring days away from work in 2015.
Hannon said injuries—and damage to infrastructure from forklifts—might be reduced if forklifts were limited to operating around the loading docks, where a skilled driver is needed to move pallets on and off trucks, and mobile robots were used to move cargo in and out of the warehouse or across a cross docking facility.
There would be fewer workers in these high traffic areas, and the robots are equipped with sensors to detect the presence of persons and programmed to avoid collisions just as they are in pick-and-pack warehouses.
“Because humans are going to be running out in front of these vehicles, they’ve got to be able to stop,” said Hannon.
Omron Adept does not disclose exactly how many robots it sells, but Hannon said it is fair to say that more than 1,000 of its mobile robots have been installed since 2013. The mobile robots cost between around $30,000-$50,000.
While European and U.S. companies are now purchasing greater numbers of Omron Adept’s mobile robots, Hannon says to date about 40 percent have been sold in Asia, where companies in China and other countries were early adopters.
He said even in China it is becoming increasingly difficult to find workers willing to do the most mundane jobs at factories and warehouses, such as pushing a cart, work that the LD Series robots can easily perform.
Lithium Logistics. Currently, Omron Adept’s robots are mostly built to order and shipped to customers as soon as they are completed, but the company has plans to create distribution centers in Europe and Asia to be closer to overseas customers, storing popular models of its robots so that orders can be filled rapidly.
Adding an extra complication to the company’s supply chain operations, the lithium iron phosphate batteries in the robots have to be shipped separately from the robots themselves and must be discharged to 30 percent of a full charge.
To date, Omron Adept has been shipping the mobile robots by air to its overseas customers, but now that volumes have grown and the company has a better understanding of market dynamics, “we’re probably going to try to move to some ocean freight as well, just to reduce our overall logistics costs,” said Hannon. He said the company will use an NVOCC initially because its volumes are not yet sufficient to fill entire containers.
He noted there are “fewer and fewer carriers that are willing to transport lithium ion batteries. They don’t like doing it. And of course the ones that do it, the costs are going through the roof. So I think it’s time for a change and that’s what I’m focused on.
“We are very careful about the packaging because it needs to arrive in good shape. So we typically use the ASTM standards whenever we package any of our robots,” said Hannon.
Omron Adept had been outsourcing battery compliance and shipping to a third-party logistics provider until late last year.
“Using a 3PL had increased our lead time and costs for managing the battery program, with shipments sometimes delayed due to stringent packaging requirements,” said Wes Watson, director of logistics for Omron Management Center of America, which oversees Omron operations in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Brazil.
After reviewing the company’s shipping procedures and 3PL costs, Watson recommended moving the entire transportation process for all Omron Adept robots in house to maximize supply chain efficiencies.
“Shipping large format lithium batteries requires a high level of detail to meet current and changing regulations,” said Watson. “We wanted more control to monitor the compliance of the program and stay up-to-date with regulations. We also felt it would be more cost effective to ship product ourselves.”
Trained Compliance. Once the decision was made to move its shipping operations in house, Omron Adept contracted Chicago-based Labelmaster Services, which specializes in helping companies comply with regulations governing dangerous goods and hazardous materials.
Watson said he was attracted to Labelmaster both because of its software package and its ongoing support services.
Because the mobile robot line was a recent acquisition and Omron Adept has many new employees, he wanted workers to get in-person training. Other vendors only offered online certification classes.
Mike Pagel, senior consultant with Labelmaster, managed the project. As a first step, Labelmaster conducted an audit of the entire shipping process for the mobile robots and made recommendations for enhancements. Along with the audit, Labelmaster provided a process guide with detailed procedures for every type of battery Omron Adept ships for all modes of transportation including ground, air and sea. The guide included instructions on how to properly package and label the cargo, as well as how to complete the required documentation.
Following the audit, Labelmaster conducted training sessions in early December for Omron Adept staff and 12 employees were certified after a full day’s class. Omron Adept also purchased Labelmaster’s Dangerous Goods Information System (DGIS), a software solution for managing dangerous goods shipping, and a Labelmaster software consultant visited the plant to conduct individual training sessions for platform users.
“A growing number of electronics and technology companies use DGIS to ship lithium batteries,” said Pagel. “In the past, batteries were shipped under certain exceptions that meant no shipping papers were required. With recent changes, both to the regulations and to carrier-specific requirements, more battery shipments are moving from ‘excepted’ shipments to ‘fully regulated’ shipments, and our software is an ideal solution to meet those requirements.
senior consultant, Labelmaster
“Regulations governing lithium batteries shipping by air require the right labels, packaging,we marks and a complete DG Shipper’s Declaration or DGD form for dangerous goods,” he added. “The DGD is a regulated document that is very tightly controlled and must be completed correctly, or a package can get stopped in transport and result in a violation from the FAA.”
Pagel explained that “bare” lithium ion batteries—those not installed in equipment—can no longer be shipped on aircraft carrying passengers, and those that are shipped in cargo aircraft can only have 30 percent of their charge. Shipping fully discharged batteries might seem like a good idea for safety’s sake, but this is not done because it would damage the battery.
Batteries must also be shipped in “U.N. performance packaging,” which is more robust than a standard corrugated cardboard carton, and can better protect a battery from being damaged in transit.
And Pagel said an increasing number of air carriers are putting restrictions in place that go above and beyond government regulations, making it more difficult ship batteries by air, especially large batteries used to power vehicles.
“From the time I contacted Labelmaster to the time we were up and running was just over a month,” said Watson. “That was a big win for us because implementation of such programs can take much longer.”
He said Labelmaster keeps Omron Adept notified about new and changing regulations and that its relationships with major carriers have been improved as a result.