Boom-and-bust cycles are not uncommon in the automotive sector. However, the COVID-19 pandemic left even the automotive industry shocked by the extreme levels of fluctuation. The United States automotive industry went from facing facility shutdowns to record setting sales for new vehicles in a matter of months. The monumental surges in demand, evolving safety protocols, and shrinking labor pools highlighted the need for material handling automation within this space.
In this article, we ask an industry expert for insights on trends, tips, and the latest updates affecting the automotive industry. August Drake, Seegrid’s Director of Application Engineering, leads a team of Application Engineers and is closely involved in strategizing, designing, and implementing automation solutions across Seegrid's customer base.
August and her team combine industrial, manufacturing, and engineering backgrounds with extensive experience in autonomous materials movement operations, working with some of the world’s largest leading brands. Her team is actively designing automation solutions for some of the top OEMs within the automotive industry. Their focus is on reducing operating costs, increasing safety, and boosting productivity to provide companies the ability to adapt to changes and challenges over time.
In this “5 Questions Answered” segment, we turn to August Drake to explain how automotive manufacturers can ensure success through safe, efficient, and reliable material flow by utilizing autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).
Q&A with Automation Thought Leader, August Drake
What is the biggest challenge automotive manufacturers are facing today?
August Drake: As we’ve all experienced in many aspects of our daily lives, the element of change is something that always needs to be taken into consideration. Supply chain hurdles continue to rapidly occur and evolve, requiring companies to react quickly, decisively, and effectively in order to remain viable and competitive. Many of the current disruptions aren’t anything new. The pandemic put a heightened focus on solving many challenges that were already present.
For example, there was already a pre-existing shortage for skilled laborers, and this shortage has only grown since the start of the outbreak. Many facilities have been left wondering how to keep production running with low shift counts without sacrificing employee safety. The need to operate efficiently, safely, and productively with less people is critical for today as well as setting up for success in the future.
Additionally, demand for new vehicles is surging at an all-time high for many automotive manufacturers. With consumers spending more time at home, there has been a dramatic shift in how people are spending money. Many consumers are spending less money on vacations, entertainment, and dining out, and are now more likely to splurge on durable goods, like new cars and home appliances. The record high demand levels make it that much harder to maintain production levels with less workers. The pressure for producing products faster and more efficiently will only grow as companies continue to advance, improve, and adjust to disruptions.
How does automation play a role in overcoming these challenges?
August Drake: Whether it is due to a spike in demand, operating with less workers, company growth, or new products being introduced to a line, change will always be a factor. In order for companies to remain successful, supply chains need to be able to adapt quickly and effectively.
Automation can add flexibility and reliability to overcome these evolving challenges. When the right automation solution is implemented, facilities can quickly adapt the workflows and streamline processes to add efficiencies and improve safety. With the pandemic, many facilities have been scrambling to find additional help amongst a limited labor pool, adding downtime for personnel training, and changing workflows to operate with less people. This simply isn’t productive or sustainable.
Technology, like Seegrid AMRs, can quickly be implemented and instantly retrained to adjust for any changes in the workflow. Automation solutions not only help solve for the labor shortage, but AMRs also boost safety, reliably increase productivity with streamlined workflows, and help with maintaining social distancing and public health protocols by reducing operator touches and direct contact between employees.
What are key factors I should look for when searching for an automation solution?
August Drake: Flexibility. I cannot stress enough how crucial it is to find an automation partner that provides solutions that allow you to easily make changes over time. Production downtime, facility reconstruction, and additional support costs can make or break a supply chain. Our vehicles can instantly be retrained for new tasks and workflows, allowing you to keep production running without disruption.
Also, an automation partner should support you every step of the way. At Seegrid, our Application Engineers are dedicated to understanding your operational goals—today and future state. They will develop custom recommendations that integrate with your existing infrastructure while maximizing the value of your investment. Our team collaborates with you to create the most effective solution to help you achieve your goals and reach a fast ROI. From there, we also have teams that are dedicated to training your personnel, successfully deploying your fleet, and championing your ongoing success. We take a customer-centric approach, delivering automation that works to scale. We are passionate about helping you experience the full potential of your automation project.
Are there certain applications or functions in which automation can help reduce operating costs?
August Drake: Seegrid’s automation solutions are designed to help companies reduce their operating costs while boosting safety, productivity, and reliability. When AMRs take on the monotonous, extremely physical and dangerous work, safety and productivity can be achieved simultaneously.
Seegrid AMRs are a perfect fit within automotive OEM facilities. There are many opportunities for automated vehicles to haul multiple heavy loads of parts and materials across the plant floor. Just a few of the top workflow applications for our autonomous vehicles include transporting sequenced dollies from dock to lineside, bulk parts to sequencing cells or lineside staging, dolly prep to body weld cell, and empty containers to docks. By reallocating labor and leveraging AMRs in these workflows among many other applications, you can quickly achieve a solid ROI.
Our vehicles have built-in technology to reliably follow orders, maintain speed limits, avoid collisions, and behave predictably. Not only will autonomous vehicles protect against damaged products and costly workplace injuries, but they also allow you to redeploy your staff to more rewarding positions. AMRs ensure accuracy, minimize costs, improve facility safety, and boost throughput—24/7. Facilities become safer with proven AMR technology in place, and human employees become more engaged and safer when they are focused on highly cognitive tasks.
Outside of recent disruptions caused by COVID-19, why is it important that automotive supply chains consider automation?
August Drake: To ensure success today and into the future, supply chains need to be agile to adjust for changes. No matter the root cause or scale, disruptions will continue to occur. Supply chains will always battle the pressures of faster, better, and for less. To stay competitive and deliver an exceptional customer experience, supply chains need to be reliable, safe, and efficient. Flexible automation ensures that a supply chain can adapt, whether it’s redeploying an AMR to a different shift, task, or new facility, at any given notice.
Companies should not only be focused on today’s challenges and success, but also the big picture of what’s to come in the future. As your facility advances and achieves Industry 4.0 goals, ensure that your technology can grow with you. Not only should you be ready for any changes that may occur, but you should also account for growth. Don’t lock yourself into an automation solution that only solves one problem. Your needs, products, demands, and goals will change over time. Select an automation solution that gives you the power to continue growing and advancing for the competitive advantage.
Download our infographic to learn more about the top AMR applications for automotive OEMs: