Autonomous Mobile Robots 101: The Complete Buyers Guide

Getting Started with Autonomous Mobile Robots? This Guide Has All You Need to Know. We give you the full primer on AMR Applications and Use Cases, Key Benefits and Limitations, Estimating your ROI, and the fundamentals of AMR technology. All from a vendor independent source.

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are becoming an increasingly common sight in warehouses, factories, hospitals and other environments where there is a need to automate internal logistics and material handling. AMRs are robots that can navigate and operate in uncontrolled, real-world spaces without needing physical infrastructure like tracks or maps. Thanks to on-board sensors, cameras and artificial intelligence, AMRs can understand their surroundings, plot optimal paths, and handle unexpected obstacles safely and efficiently.

The benefits of AMRs like flexibility, scalability and collaboration with human workers are driving adoption across industries like manufacturing, logistics and healthcare. This article provides an in-depth look at AMR capabilities, applications, benefits and challenges. Read on to learn more about how AMRs are transforming material handling and inventory management.

In this article:

What are autonomous mobile robots (AMRs)

Autonomous mobile robots, or AMRs, are robots that can navigate and operate in uncontrolled, dynamic environments without needing physical infrastructure like tracks or beacons. They are different from automated guided vehicles (AGVs) which rely on tracks, wires or magnetic tape to follow fixed paths.

AMRs are equipped with various sensors and AI-powered software that allow them to perceive their surroundings using cameras and LiDARs. This sensory information is processed to build a digital map of the environment. AMRs use simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) algorithms along with the map to understand their location. They can also detect obstacles and plot optimal, collision-free paths between destinations using this spatial awareness.

If an unexpected obstacle like a person or object appears, AMRs can dynamically recalculate a path to avoid collisions. This autonomous navigation capability allows AMRs to travel and operate safely alongside human workers without the need for strictly controlled environments. It also provides flexibility to handle changing demands.

Types of AMRs and their functions

AMRs can be equipped with various applications and attachments to handle different material handling tasks.

Manual Loading AMRs

These are AMRs with shelves, bins or other custom attachments. Workers can manually load and unload inventory from these AMRs.

Rack and Cart lifting AMRs

These AMRs can tunnel underneath a rack or a cart and pick it up by raising a lifting plate mounted on top of the AMR.

Pallet Lifting AMRs

Heavier duty AMRs can lift and move pallets of inventory and finished goods between locations, docks and storage areas in a warehouse. These AMRs drive underneath the pallets and lift them up. The pallets need to be placed on a supporting structure from which the AMR can go underneath and take them away.

Dollies Lifting AMRs

These are AMRs with a single lifting jack that can lift and move material handling equipment like wheeled dollies and carts loaded with goods to automate dolly transportation.

Forklift AMRs

AMRs equipped with forks provide automated forklift capabilities for pallet and load lifting and transportation without human forklift drivers. Unlike Pallet AMRs, forklift AMRs can pick pallets directly from the floor, and often deliver them at a height into a storage system or to do pallet stacking.

Tugger AMRs

These AMRs can latch onto a cart either automatically or manually and then pull the cart behind it. These AMRs are great for transporting carts, trolleys, roller cages and other wheeled containers.

Cart Pulling AMRs

These AMRs tunnel underneath a cart and attach themselves to the cart (anchoring) by inserting one or more pins. Compared to Tugger AMRs the Cart Pulling AMRs are more constrained in the design of the cart, which must fit the AMR underneath and must have the holes for the pins to anchor with the cart. However Cart Pulling AMRs require less space than Tugger AMRs and have better maneuverability.

Conveyor AMRs

AMR platforms with conveyor attachments or top modules can integrate with conveyor systems for automated case picking, induction and transfers.

Box Picker AMRs

AMRs with robotic case picking mechanisms that can pick and place totes and bins from shelves onto the AMR. The items are then transported for fulfillment.

Mobile Manipulators

These combine AMR locomotion with robotic arms capable of flexible picking, packing, palletizing and other maneuvers for advanced automation of complex material handling tasks.

Large Specialized Load AMRs

Heavy duty AMRs that can handle extreme loads like metal coils and reels weighing thousands of kilograms to automatically transport them.

Platform AMRs

AMR platforms are purchased without a specific application, but instead have mounting holes and connection interfaces for building a customized application on top of the AMR.

Advantages & Benefits of implementing AMRs

AMRs offer several advantages over traditional material handling methods and older automation technologies:

Flexibility: AMRs can be deployed quickly without changing infrastructure. Their self-guided navigation allows them to adapt to modifications in the environment. This flexibility makes it easy to reconfigure or redeploy AMRs as needs change.

Quick implementation: AMRs can start working in just days or weeks since no time-consuming installation of tracks, beacons or wires is required. Their fast deployment provides a quick return on investment.

Safety: Onboard sensors let AMRs detect people, objects and obstacles in their path and avoid collisions. This enhances worker safety in collaborative warehouse environments. AMRs handle risky material handling tasks in place of workers. Their programmable operation, safety sensors and built-in redundancies reduce potential accidents and injuries.

Productivity: AMRs can work continuously without breaks, optimizing workflows. Their use in material transport and inventory management frees up human workers for more valuable tasks. AMRs optimize material flows and inventory moves, ensuring items are at the right place at the right time to keep warehouse processes running smoothly. Their use reduces unproductive travel and manual material handling time.

Accuracy: AMRs reduce errors in repetitive material handling tasks through consistent operation. Integrations with warehouse execution systems also provide inventory and location accuracy. AMRs eliminate errors in repetitive tasks through consistent operation.

Scalability: It is easy to add or remove AMRs from fleets as business needs change. This scalability makes it simpler to handle seasonal peaks or business growth.

Data insights: AMRs generate abundant data on warehouse traffic patterns, bottlenecks and inventory. This provides valuable intelligence for optimization. Detailed data from AMR fleets helps identify and troubleshoot warehouse inefficiencies to drive further optimization.

Enhanced customer satisfaction: AMR optimization of order fulfillment improves order accuracy and on-time delivery, enhancing customer satisfaction.

Future-proofing operations: AMRs allow warehouses and factories to cost-effectively scale and meet changing demands.

Challenges and limitations of AMRs

While providing substantial benefits, AMR adoption also comes with some challenges and limitations:

High upfront costs: AMRs involve significant upfront investment, which can deter some companies. However, costs are falling rapidly.

Slower speeds: AMRs move at relatively slow speeds compared to forklifts for safety reasons. This limits throughput potential in some scenarios.

Payload weight limits: Individual AMRs have payload capacity limits, usually under 1 ton. This restricts the size of loads they can transport.

Integration with existing systems: There is some initial work needed to connect AMRs with warehouse management and execution systems.

Changing business needs: Adapting processes and AMR fleets to changing business volumes or products requires ongoing adjustments.

Comparison of AMRs vs AGVs

AMRs differ from automated guided vehicles, or AGVs, when it comes to navigation, flexibility, applications and capabilities:

AMRs utilize sophisticated on-board sensing and artificial intelligence for autonomous navigation. AGVs follow fixed pathways using wires, magnets or lasers for guidance.

AMRs can dynamically navigate and handle changing warehouse environments. AGVs require controlled environments along their fixed routes.

AMRs integrate more easily with human workers and processes. Most AGVs operate in isolated environments away from people.

AMRs can handle more material transport tasks like picking and conveyor integration. AGVs focus mainly on point-to-point transport.

AMR capabilities are evolving rapidly with advances in sensing, AI and robotics. AGVs offer proven but limited functionality.

In summary, AMRs provide more flexibility whereas AGVs excel at fixed route material delivery in controlled spaces. A blend of these technologies is ideal for many warehouses or factories.

AMR safety

Safety is a critical priority when implementing autonomous mobile robots. Here are key considerations for safe AMR operation:

AMR safety standards and regulations: AMRs must comply with safety standards like ISO 3691-4, ANSI B56.5, ANSI RIA 15.08, etc. which require redundancy, collision avoidance, emergency stops and other features.

Methods for collision avoidance and human-robot collaboration: AMRs use various sensors like lidars, depth cameras and ultrasonic detectors to detect obstacles in all directions and stop or maneuver to avoid collisions.

Testing and validating AMR safety systems: Extensive testing is necessary to validate AMR sensing, controls and responses operate reliably and safely before deployment.

AMR emergency stop systems and safety mechanisms: E-stop buttons, speed limits, warning lights and sounds are some AMR safety mechanisms.

Adding safety mechanisms for new AMR applications: Additional sensing, guarding or software controls may be needed when adapting AMRs for new applications.

A culture of safety and continuous improvement is also essential for safe AMR operation. Operators and technicians require proper AMR training and safety procedures must be instituted.

AMR ROI analysis and payback periods

Calculating return on investment helps determine financial feasibility and payback periods when adopting AMRs:

Cost of AMRs: The costs of purchasing or leasing AMR units, maintenance, spare parts, IT infrastructure and other expenses must be estimated.

Calculating labor cost savings: AMR utilization can reduce wages, benefits, training and headcount needs. Quantifying expected labor savings is key.

Productivity improvements and throughput increases: Estimate the increase in warehouse throughput by using AMRs to handle material transport and other tasks.

Methods for calculating AMR ROI: Formulas accounting for AMR costs versus labor savings and productivity gains provide ROI estimates.

Considerations for warehouse layout and infrastructure changes: Alterations to accommodate AMRs may increase costs but also boost benefits.

Scaling AMR fleets and associated costs: ROI estimations should consider economics of scaling AMR fleets as volumes grow.

Comparing ROI across different AMR applications: ROI will differ substantially based on specific AMR use cases and transportation needs.

Benchmarking AMR ROI across industries: End Users can compare ROI figures from AMR case studies in similar industries.

Factors impacting AMR ROI like utilization rates: AMR idle time versus busy time driven by workflows affects ROI. Higher utilization yields better returns.

Optimizing AMR fleets for maximum ROI: Fleet size, mix of AMR types, shift patterns and charging approaches impact ROI. Modeling helps optimize for ROI.

Data analytics for monitoring AMR ROI over time: Ongoing analysis of AMR utilization metrics and other KPIs helps track ROI and optimize operations.

Best practices for faster and higher AMR ROI: Strategies like starting small, pairing AMRs with workers, and careful software integration improve ROI.

Applications of AMRs in different industries

AMRs are transforming material handling and inventory management across many industries:

Warehousing and logistics: Transporting pallets and totes, sortation, order picking and inventory management are key AMR applications in warehouses and distribution centers.

Ecommerce: Fast growing order volumes make AMRs ideal for ecommerce order fulfillment given their flexibility and scalability.

Manufacturing: AMRs assist manufacturing by transporting parts and components between production areas, warehouses, kitting stations and shipping docks.

Automotive: Large AMRs transport heavy auto components and sub-assemblies through factories while avoiding collisions.

Food and beverage processing: AMRs help automate internal logistics in bottling plants, bakeries, beverage factories and other F&B operations.

Consumer Electronics: In electronics factories, small AMRs efficiently transport tiny electronic components to production lines and move finished circuit boards.

Semi Conductors: Ultraclean AMRs equipped with enclosures safely handle sensitive semiconductor wafers between clean room production areas without contamination.

Solar Panels: Large specialized AMRs carefully transport heavy and fragile solar panels and solar panel wafers between each step in the production process and from production bays to testing and packing zones.

Healthcare: AMRs assist healthcare via clean transport of supplies, pharmaceuticals, lab specimens, linens, food and waste while navigating smoothly and autonomously through areas with patients and staff.

Retail: Retailers leverage AMRs to automate stockroom replenishment, purchase order packing and inventory moves minimizing store labor needs.

Grocery stores: Customer-facing AMRs at some grocery stores scan shelves for inventory and pricing errors and transport goods between stockrooms and shopping areas.

Hospitality: Hotels utilize AMRs to automate room service or handle delivery of linens, toiletries and meals to guest rooms, allowing staff to focus on customer service.

Data centers: Sensitive AMRs provide secure transportation of IT equipment and hardware between data center staging, deployment and maintenance areas.

Biotech and life sciences: AMRs enable contamination-free transport of pharmaceutical ingredients, cell cultures and other materials around sterile biotech facilities.

Airports: Baggage-towing AMRs and specialized cargo AMRs autonomously transport luggage and freight at airports improving logistics.

AMR components and how they work

AMRs consist of various hardware and software components that enable their autonomous operation:

Navigation sensors: Laser scanners, depth cameras and ultrasonic sensors allow AMRs to detect surroundings and obstacles for navigation.

Collision avoidance sensors: Bump sensors and safety-rated lidars cause AMRs to stop on contact before collisions.

Mapping software: Algorithms process sensor data to construct 3D digital maps of the environment required for AMRs to navigate.

Fleet management systems: Software coordinates and monitors AMR fleets, optimizing workload distribution and traffic routing.

Batteries and charging: Lithium-ion batteries provide power. AMRs autonomously dock at charging stations when batteries run low.

Controllers: Onboard computers with AI chips run navigation algorithms, motion control and task software enabling autonomous operation.

Human-machine interfaces: Touchscreen tablets or screens allow workers to interact with AMRs to assign tasks, control operation and diagnose issues.

Communications: Wireless connectivity allows AMR fleet data and commands to be exchanged with facility and enterprise information systems.

Chassis and locomotion: Chassis frames house components. Locomotion via wheels, tracks or legs allows AMRs to move around.

Attachments: Accessories like shelves, conveyors, robotic arms and trailers attach to AMR bases adapting them for specialized material handling tasks.

Enclosures: On some AMRs, enclosed shrouds protect internal components from dirt, impacts and contamination.

Fundamentals and variations of SLAM navigation

Simultaneous localization and mapping, or SLAM, is the key technology enabling AMR and mobile robot navigation:

Principles of SLAM: SLAM algorithms leverage sensor data to simultaneously build a map of surroundings and use that map to determine AMR location within the environment.

Sensors for SLAM: Lidars, depth cameras, accelerometers and other sensors capture data on environment geometry used in SLAM.

Kalman filter-based SLAM: Some SLAM techniques use statistical Kalman filtering to fuse sensor data for localization and mapping.

Visual and visual-inertial SLAM: These approaches rely primarily on cameras with some also using inertial sensors for more robust SLAM.

Graph-based SLAM: This form represents the SLAM problem as a pose graph with nodes as locations and edges representing constraints between poses.

Loop closure for reducing SLAM drift: Detecting when robots revisit mapped areas allows correction of SLAM drift errors over time from sensor noise.

Semantic SLAM: This enhanced technique incorporates semantic labels like walls, doors and objects into maps generated by SLAM providing more contextual mapping.

Multi-robot and collaborative SLAM: With multiple AMRs, sensors on each AMR can build maps collaboratively covering larger areas more quickly.

Lifelong SLAM: For persistent long-term use, AMRs must support capability to dynamically modify maps over months rather than single sessions.

SLAM in dynamic environments: Advanced algorithms make SLAM more robust in crowded spaces with frequently moving obstacles by tracking dynamic elements.

Combining SLAM with other navigation techniques: SLAM is often combined with path planning, collision avoidance and other methods to enable fully autonomous navigation.

Benchmarking and metrics for comparing SLAM algorithms: Factors like accuracy, speed, scalability, robustness and computational cost are used to evaluate the performance of SLAM methods.

Integration of AMRs with warehouse management systems

Connecting AMRs with existing warehouse management systems (WMS) and manufacturing execution systems (MES) enables coordinated optimization:

AMR software compatibility with WMS/MES systems: AMR fleet managers must support data exchange with major WMS and MES platforms used in warehousing and manufacturing via APIs.

Methods for AMR-WMS/MES integration and data exchange: REST APIs, database links and MQTT message queues are common technical means to connect AMR fleet management software with WMS/MES/ERP systems.

Syncing AMR real-time data with WMS/MES: AMR location and status data must stream in real-time into WMS and MES systems so inventory and work statuses are up to date.

Integrating AMR navigation with WMS directives: Dynamic WMS work assignments and instructions need to be receivable by AMRs so WMS can orchestrate AMR fleet activities.

Coordinating AMR fleets using WMS/MES workflow data: WMS directives optimize and sequence work across multiple AMRs based on orders, priorities, congestion and other variables.

Optimizing workflows between AMRs, WMS/MES and employees: AMR task integration with WMS and MES optimizes overall warehouse workflows by coordinating activities across AMR and human assets.

Adding AMR capabilities like picking to WMS systems: Tight integration allows the WMS system to leverage AMR-based automation capabilities in identifying optimal tasks and routes.

Best practices for AMR-WMS/MES integration: Following guidelines for standard interfaces, data models, staged rollouts and change management ensures smooth AMR integration with warehouse IT ecosystems.

Customizing your AMR with a unique top application

AMRs are highly customizable for specialized material handling using various approaches:

Assessing application requirements to select optimal AMR model: Consider load size, required attachments, operating environment and needed sensors when selecting an AMR for customization.

Integrating sensors, grippers, and end effectors for custom apps: Sensors like barcode scanners or RFID readers can be added to AMRs. Grippers and vacuum cups can be attached for custom material handling.

Methods for mechanically mounting custom hardware on AMRs: Custom components can be bolted onto standard mounting points or plates on AMR platforms. Adapter brackets may be required.

Electrical integration and control of accessories mounted on AMRs: Power and data cables must be connected from custom appendages to AMR electrical systems and controllers.

Software modifications to control and integrate custom payloads: AMR fleet management software needs added programming so AMRs can interface with and operate custom equipment.

Validating safety for custom AMR applications: Risk assessments identify potential new hazards from AMR modifications. Added safety mechanisms may be necessary to mitigate identified risks.

Design considerations for balancing payload and battery life: Heavier custom loads drain batteries faster. Larger batteries or alternative charging approaches may be needed.

Custom enclosures and housings for application-specific AMRs: Some applications require protective coverings and guards customized for AMRs to meet safety, cleanliness or environmental needs.

Modular attachment points to easily change AMR payloads: Standardized electrical and mechanical interfaces allow swapping different accessories to repurpose AMRs quickly for new applications.

Customizing AMRs for use outdoors or extreme environments: Ruggedizing, weather protection, modified tires and remote diagnostics prepare AMRs for reliable outdoor operation.

AMR Maintenance

Proper maintenance is essential to sustain optimal AMR performance and reliability:

Regular maintenance requirements for AMRs: Daily inspections and cleaning plus periodic hardware and software checkups are needed according to manufacturer recommendations.

Battery maintenance, charging and replacement: Batteries require monitoring, periodic discharges, temperature control and eventual replacement to maximize performance and longevity.

Cleaning sensors and cameras on AMRs: Light debris on sensors can degrade navigation performance over time so occasional cleaning is necessary.

Software updates and patch management: Regular AMR software updates mitigate bugs and security issues while improving capabilities.

Strategies for maintaining optimal AMR fleet performance: Balanced work allocation, controlled traffic routing and AMR compatibility with floor conditions optimize fleet operation.

Using data analytics to predict AMR maintenance needs: Sensor readings and performance metrics may indicate components needing proactive preventive maintenance.

Diagnosing errors and anomalies in AMRs: Logs and data are analyzed to investigate problems and determine root causes like sensor defects, software bugs or mechanical issues.

Maintaining maps and localization accuracy in AMRs: Occasional remapping ensures localization accuracy as the environment changes over months. New equipment, walls and racking alter maps.

Training maintenance staff on AMR repair and troubleshooting: Skilled technicians trained on AMR components, diagnostics tools and repair procedures minimize downtime when issues occur.

Sourcing spare parts and components for AMRs: Keeping spare parts like tires, controllers, and sensors on hand reduces downtimes when repairs are needed.

Best practices for safe and efficient AMR maintenance: Following manufacturer guidelines, documentation, trained staff and compliance with lockout procedures are essential for AMR upkeep.

AMR vendors and competitive landscape

There is an expanding field of AMR vendors as the technology gains traction:

Major AMR manufacturers: Significant AMR makers include Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR), Omron, Geek+, Locus Robotics, Otto Motors, and Fetch Robotics who all offer varied AMR models.

Robotics company entrants: Established robotics firms like ABB, Kuka and others now offer AMRs as the market grows.

Logistics leaders: Top warehouse equipment suppliers like Honeywell Intelligrated, Dematic and Toyota Material Handling now provide AMR options.

Autonomous vehicle startup activity: Startups with advanced autonomy technology like those from the self-driving car industry are introducing AMRs.

Open-source designs: Some AMR manufacturers leverage open-source robotics software and reference designs to speed development.

RaaS – Robotics as a Service: Some AMR providers lease or rent robots allowing capex-free adoption of automation.

AMR market consolidation: Merger and acquisition activity in AMRs is increasing as larger corporations acquire AMR companies.

In summary, the AMR industry is rapidly evolving with both focused AMR specialists and diversified automation firms embracing this technology. Buyers have an increasing variety of AMR sourcing options.

Here is a list of the all the AMR manufacturers we cover in the Mobile Robot Directory:

This list excludes manufacturers of AGV and other non-AMR type mobile robots. For a full list of all the mobile robots manufacturers head over to the directory section of our site.

AMRs are a strategic growth priority for the material handling and logistics industries based on current trends:

Industry growth projections and market size for AMRs: The total global shipments of AMRs is forecast to grow by 60% annually until 2027, reaching a market valuation of approximately $15 billion according to analyst firm Interact Analysis.

AMR adoption rates across industries and factors driving adoption: Warehousing and manufacturing industries are adopting AMRs most rapidly due to labor issues, growth, and cost reduction needs. Safety, flexibility, and fast ROI make AMRs appealing.

Emerging robot technologies like AI-powered robots: Developments in artificial intelligence, computer vision and machine learning will expand AMR capabilities and applications in the future. AMRs with more advanced autonomy are emerging.

Emerging AMR capabilities like self-charging and enhanced sensors: AMR hardware enhancements like automated charging and improved sensing will reduce operating costs and downtime while boosting navigation accuracy.

Use of AMRs in non-traditional spaces like outdoors, construction sites, farms: Ruggedized, weather-resistant AMRs suited for uncontrolled outdoor environments are an emerging niche with high automation potential.

Impact of AMRs on workforce and job displacement concerns: AMRs automate repetitive manual work but Collaboration with humans is essential in most applications. New human roles are needed in AMR operation, maintenance and management.

Environmental benefits of AMRs like energy savings: Studies show AMRs consume up to 75% less energy for material transport than manual material handling methods. Their use reduces facility energy usage.

Cybersecurity considerations with increased AMR connectivity: With extensive networking capabilities, AMR cybersecurity including encryption and access controls is vital to avoid fleet hacking and sabotage.

In summary, ongoing innovation in sensing, navigation, and manipulation will significantly expand AMR capabilities, leading to high projected market growth as AMR adoption accelerates across many industries.

Conclusion

Autonomous mobile robots are transforming inventory management, material handling and internal logistics across multiple industries through flexible automation. As AMR technologies and capabilities advance, their deployment is likely to accelerate given the substantial benefits in terms of productivity, flexibility, safety and cost reduction. However, careful planning and evaluation is needed to determine ideal applications and workflows for AMR adoption in each facility while addressing potential limitations. With proper integration, maintenance and management, AMRs represent a strategic opportunity for organizations to optimize operations, reduce errors, and increase competitiveness.

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