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Thought Leaders in Automation

Rob Sullivan

Mike Harper, BSME, MBA

VP of Sales and Marketing
AutoGuide Mobile Robots

Mike Harper has an extensive track record in successfully leading growth-stage technology companies. Mike joined AutoGuide Mobile Robots with a wealth of sales and leadership experience in robotic automation and industrial systems integration. Mike has been a key member of many executive teams, including FANUC, Adept Technology, and Festo. Mike is a Georgia Tech alumnus where he earned his Mechanical Engineering degree followed by an MBA in Finance from East Carolina University. Mike is charged with providing knowledgeable customer support with a focus on client success.

QUESTION

There’s been a shift in how robotics are used. We’d love to hear your take on how robots have evolved from primarily a tool for big companies in automotive and electronics to being used by companies of all sizes and virtually every industry.

ANSWER

Automation has become more accessible in a number of ways. First of all, no longer are we limited to large machines that require vast amounts of warehouse floor space to deploy. Just as the mainframe computer was supplanted by the PC so too have these behemoth systems been replaced with robots that can operate in a facility’s existing environment without significant infrastructure changes. Additionally, due to technology advances and innovative designs where robots can be repurposed for multiple tasks, the total operating cost of autonomous robots has made them not just feasible, but desirable for operations of all sizes. Even small to medium-sized warehouses can benefit from deploying automation. When they evaluate the increased productivity and safety of autonomous solutions, and the positive impact on personnel as they move to higher value tasks that take advantage of human ingenuity, the value of automating their facilities becomes immediately apparent. Automation can significantly impact an operation’s profitability and easily prove a quick return on investment.

QUESTION

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed many vulnerabilities in areas such as supply chain, business operations, manufacturing processes, etc. What are the most important lessons you’ve learned that will help your company better prepare for future pandemics?

ANSWER

It’s all about being nimble, listening to the customer and creatively solving problems. COVID-19 has presented a number of challenges to our customers and their success is often determined by their ability to adapt quickly to ever-changing circumstances. And if anything has brought ever-changing circumstances, it’s COVID-19. By focusing on solving our customers’ problems, AutoGuide has been able to develop a deeper understanding of their business challenges, and provide guidance and solutions that not only meet the immediate need but future-proof their operations as they evolve. Custom solutions have always been an AutoGuide strength but now more than ever our deployments are being challenged and are proving their value day in and day out.

QUESTION

During the last 20 years, manufacturing companies have seen a 25 percent improvement in productivity as a result of automation. This has caused a recalibration in the tasks of the workforce. How does this benefit not only the company, but also the worker?

ANSWER

‘Dull, dirty and dangerous’ tasks are just that – dull, dirty and dangerous – and are tailor-made for automation. People, on the other hand, have skills and talents that can never be replicated by a robot. Efficient warehouse operations rely on utilizing the right resource for the job at hand – in some cases people and in other cases automation. Repetitive tasks like moving materials from one area of a warehouse to another or picking and placing pallets in high bay racks are well-suited for automating. Software keeps track of the robots’ movements and the inventory being moved around, while people focus on higher value tasks that require human know-how and resourcefulness. Productivity gains are easy to measure on a balance sheet but we’ve seen first-hand the positive impact automation brings to employee morale and company culture.

QUESTION

It’s clear that companies want to invest in automation but what’s your advice on how to get started? How does an operation evaluate what they should automate within their facility to make the biggest impact on their organization?

ANSWER

Every operation is different but we tend to see trends along industry verticals. Warehouses often require large amounts of materials to be moved over long distances. Autonomous tuggers are well-suited for this task. They can be fitted with standard or custom trailers based on your specific needs and carry far more materials in a single trip than a forklift. In high-bay warehouses, an autonomous high bay forklift can be used to store pallets at different tiers in high bay racking systems. Accompanying software can be used to keep track of the exact location of those pallets so retrieval is simple and accurate when the time comes. In manufacturing environments, autonomous pallet stackers can load autonomous tuggers with raw materials to be delivered line-side on a just-in-time basis. Autonomous tuggers can also deliver finished goods to the warehouse or shipping area, where autonomous pallet stackers can unload them. Picking the right application is about having a deep understanding of where inefficiencies lie, then using autonomous solutions to not just replace the existing task but extend the solution to fully utilize the capabilities of the robots.

QUESTION

With economists forecasting larger uses of robotics and automation, especially coming out of the COVID-19 landscape, this potentially means a lot of new customers – what would you tell business leaders about getting started with automation?

ANSWER

Keep it simple. Start with the tasks where it’s easy to see the inefficiencies – repetitive tasks and places where bottlenecks occur – then develop a pilot that allows you to test your hypothesis. With a small pilot, you can gain a deeper understanding of the ROI and learn the benefits of AMRs while minimizing the impact to your organization. You can then expand and work your way through new applications, learning not only to mimic manual operations but to increase efficiency using the unique capabilities of AMRs.

QUESTION

While we all know downtime can help relieve stress, several science-backed studies confirm you actually improve productivity when you take time to enjoy life outside of the office. What are some of your favorite things to do in your free time?

ANSWER

Our daily lives have changes so much since the onset of COVID-19 but luckily I’m still able to do some of my favorite activities. I enjoy hiking, with its opportunity to take in the great views nature has to offer, helping to calm and relax me after a long day/week. I also find distance running a great way to process thoughts and ideas, as well as use endorphins to clear a mind full of work-related thoughts. Travelling to new places and discovering the unique things about such places is a favorite pastime. I really enjoy learning the specific history about a town, restaurant, landmark, etc., although it hasn’t happened much lately. And of course, I try to spend time with family and friends in conversation and activities like sharing meals, games or live music. Sometimes it’s the little things that make the most difference.

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