How to choose a robot, figure robotic ROI

Cover story: So you want robots? Make smart robotic investments in a rapidly changing world. Consider the system using critical path analysis including robots, humans, and facility infrastructure as part of the same system. Modern sensor technology and safety systems have evolved to the point where robots can operate outside of cages, safely around people. Focus on the goal, not the hype, while figuring robotic return on investment (ROI).

By Daniel Theobald July 15, 2015

The race to automate is on, and knowing when to choose what kind of robots is important, especially when there’s lot of hype around the topic. Growing manufacturing competition increases pressure to improve customer experience, time to market, quality, and cost (ETQC). Not getting left behind requires an unprecedented level of agility and adaptability that is difficult if not impossible to achieve using traditional business approaches. To get ahead of the competition and to establish a reputation as a industry leader, continual process innovation is imperative.

Technology is changing at such a rapid rate that it presents a challenge in mitigating obsolescence. What is the best way to find the right autonomous solution for today’s job that will adapt and meet your needs over time?

To mitigate obsolescence, it’s important to find a solution that requires minimal investment in infrastructure changes, addresses the ETQC value chain, takes a "mission planning" approach, and makes interoperability a major priority. Smart investments in flexible automation will need to be a key ingredient in your overall strategy to stay ahead in ETQC.

When investing in the next generation of robotics, heed these do’s and don’ts of making smart automation decisions, including figuring robotic return on investment (ROI). 

Seek value

DON’T: Buy robots.

DO: Cut through the hype.

Robots are all the rage right now. But hype-based buying may not be a successful business strategy. No doubt that many of you reading this recently had senior management tell you to "formulate our robotics strategy," a hint of panic in their voices, "we are falling behind." The pressure to automate is real, and for many, smart automation will be paramount to survival. Cutting through the hype and focusing on the real goal you are trying to achieve is what you need to do to win. Don’t just "buy robots," instead think in terms of investing in systemwide capabilities that will bring long-term value and efficiency to your total ETQC efforts. 

The right reasons

DON’T: Chase shiny objects.

DO: Appropriately value novelty.

So right up front, I need to acknowledge that using robotics as a "novelty play," can be part of an overall successful strategy. But proceed with caution. I define a robotics novelty play as when the idea that you are using a robot is more important than the direct value the robot is actually providing. I have heard from many customers that "we want to be seen as innovative," or "we need to show our investors we are automating." While there is value in being seen as innovative, that value will be short-lived if the innovative part didn’t happen. Novelty should generally be valued more highly in consumer markets, while concrete process improvement should generally be the primary motivation in industry.

For an example, two of the most successful next generation robotics companies today are iRobot and Kiva Systems.

iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaner robot is the most widely sold robots of all time, having sold millions around the world. iRobot wisely makes sure people know it is a robot first and foremost. People respond well to that, some going as far as considering it part of the family. Cottage industries have popped up to provide robot clothing for it. Novelty is a major part of the value proposition, and most still buy traditional vacuums as well. Had iRobot marketed it instead as an "automated floor cleaning system," it is easy to imagine a less enthusiastic consumer response.

For Kiva, with a clear target in the order fulfillment market, novelty has a much smaller role. Kiva robots bring the shelves holding many purchases to a human for picking and packing, saving massive amounts of time that would otherwise be wasted by human pickers walking from shelf to shelf to fulfill an order. The Kiva implementation is heavy on process improvement, with novelty playing a smaller role.

Consider the system, ETQC metrics

DON’T: Find something to automate.

DO: Consider the whole system.

Novelty value aside, it’s tempting to look at the factory floor, point to specific problems with existing processes, and buy a robot that attempts to overcome that specific problem. But how do you know that adding automation at that point will have any positive impact on the actual metrics you care about? Critical path analysis looks at an existing system and answers the question "where is the critical point in the system that is the current limiting factor in improving ETQC metrics?"

For example, if the goal is improved output of a manufacturing process, making improvements anywhere in the system other than that critical point is a waste of money, as it will have no positive impact on your goals. Because the critical point is ultimately the "rate limiter," improving the speed anywhere else in the system makes no difference in the outcome. Critical path analysis is a great way to ensure potential improvements to an existing system that is already producing reasonable results will provide the desired ROI.

Of course, critical path analysis only goes so far. The addition of a systemwide planner can make a huge difference in overall performance of an operation. Think of all of the "actors" in a system. Suppliers, people, robots, machinery, and customers all need to be coordinated to achieve optimal results. Just buying robots without a centralized planning and optimization system will likely achieve poor overall long-term performance.

Learn more about the right reasons to buy a robot as well as advice on being flexible and how mobile robotics can be beneficial. 

Right reasons for robots

A robot might be a good choice to do a task at times, but there may be times when a person would be a better choice. Perhaps a rush order needs to be completed. While normally, the robotic pallet movers operate fast enough to meet normal schedules, this may be a time when a person needs to jump in and get it done quickly. The overall system planner needs to be able to take all the actors into account and schedule the activities of each to achieve optimal results.

When imagining robots, humans, and facility infrastructure as part of the same system, it must be managed as such, especially in environments where robots navigate in peopled spaces and often share responsibility. The goal of the system manager is to sort and process all tasks in the shortest time and with the fewest resources possible, while ensuring that priorities are properly handled. System management solutions actively control workflow rates to provide a target rate for the humans at each interval, allowing humans and robots to work together safely and at maximum efficiency. A holistic management system also will autonomously assign on-demand tasks to either robots or humans based on resource availability and urgency of the task.

If a bottleneck starts to occur that cannot be buffered autonomously, the system can immediately inform supervisors and recommend reallocation of staff to address the issue. System management provides the strategic advantage of one backbone to meet a large variety of needs, including multiple disparate autonomous platforms working together seamlessly with humans within a facility.

An added benefit to taking a systemwide approach is that robots may be rotated for incremental component and software updates without loss of productivity. In the same way that the system proactively deploys resources to address bottlenecks and peak times, the system can also detect and take advantage of days with less volume.

With adequate coverage on the floor, a system manager can alert shift supervisors that one or more robotic platforms can be taken off the floor for routine maintenance or system updates. This approach allows for optimal coverage by a fleet of robots that is constantly functioning at maximum efficiency without impacting the core productivity of the business. 

Seek flexibility

DON’T: Pay for expensive infrastructure.

DO: Invest in flexibility.

As a rule of thumb, the more infrastructure a robot requires, the less flexible and robust to change it is. Infrastructure often correlates highly to the potential for obsolescence. Modern sensor technology and safety systems have evolved to the point where robots can operate outside of cages, safely around people. Some technology once used to ensure safety on factory floors—the lasers used for light curtains—are now mounted on the robot and used intelligently for similar purposes.

Sensors include state-of-the-art 3-D sensing technology, which gives the robot an unprecedented wealth of information and environmental awareness. Robots are no longer just sensing the environment; they’re making sense of the environment.

These advancements allow robots to be implemented in existing facilities without significant infrastructure investments. This low-cost implementation approach puts robotic solutions within reach of both small and large facilities. Thus, a zero-infrastructure solution ensures that hardware can be swapped out easily, often times through a leasing program to ensure that the robotic investment keeps up with rapidly changing technology. 

Get help, beyond the robot

DON’T: Choose a robot.

DO: Choose an automation partner.

Unlike buying a pallet truck or a conveyor belt, robots have added intelligence that, when connected to other things in a dynamic environment, create enormous potential for efficiency and cost savings. When robots cannot interoperate, their value is ultimately limited. To maximize ROI through automation requires a multidisciplinary approach to envisioning immediate operational organization and integrating with other systems over time. These systems include other robots from the same or third-party vendor, facility doors and elevators, and asset tracking or order fulfillment software.

To that end, it’s important to find a partner who will bring an interoperable automation ecosystem to the table, not just one robotic product. This approach allows for quick ROI by plugging specific robots into the critical path and provides a path to fully autonomous lights-out operations and long-range ROI through complete system integration.

Rather than choosing a product based on the product alone, it’s important to choose an automation partner who can help connect the dots. Make sure robots and their implementation conform to emerging industry standards for interoperability. No one today would buy a computer that could not run software from another company. Why do so with a robot? 

Mobile robotics help manufacturing, other industries 

Robots can meet billions of dollars of unmet market needs. Below are some of the robots emerging for use in industry, health care, education, and other workplaces.

Mobile robots use advanced sensor technology to autonomously navigate peopled spaces without the use of lines and tracks. These robots can come in different form factors, and they are typically used for the intramural transport of goods.

Light logistics robots are a type of mobile robot that transport goods weighing under 500 kg (1,102 lb). Size varies. One model transports goods up to 50 kg (110 lb); another carries up to 500 kg.

Heavy logistics robots are a type of mobile robot that can lift payload of more than 500 kg. Robots may take the form of fork trucks and may be semi-autonomous (can accommodate a driver) or fully autonomous (driverless).

Telepresence robots are used for access to facilities through the use of a bidirectional video and audio display mounted on a mobile base that can be controlled remotely. Telepresence robots are used in educational settings for students to virtually attend class, health care, and home care for providers to virtually visit patients, and in business environments for remote training and/or teleconferencing.

Educational robot kits are prepackaged components for novice students and hobbyists. Organizations offer opportunities to experiment with building a robot and competing at events like First Robotics Competition, Botball, RoboCup, the VecnaCares Robot Sprint Challenge, and others. 

Educational robots are used in classroom settings to teach students science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. For example, the NAO robot serves as a helpmate to beginner programmers and even professional developers.

Rehabilitation robots respond to a patient’s neurological impulses and are used to aid in the recovery of stroke and spinal cord injury.

Sorting robots use high-speed machine perception and manipulation capabilities to pick, assemble, and pack items on a moving conveyor belt.

– Daniel Theobald, chief technology officer (CTO) and co-founder, Vecna; edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

Key concepts

  • Before buying a robot, use critical path analysis, considering robots, humans, and facility infrastructure.
  • Robots can operate safely outside of cages for some applications.
  • Figure robotic ROI by focusing on the goal, not the hype.

Consider this

What systems could benefit from robots in the loop? Have you considered ROI? 

ONLINE extra 

See the robotic page at under the Discrete Manufacturing pulldown menu.

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