Autonomy vs. Automation – a cost-efficient guide to higher productivity and quality

The AI hype is real. If you believe the media and various pundits, a self-aware Skynet-like entity is just around the corner, and we are about to see everything from robot taxis to humanoid autonomous robots in just a few years.

Reality, as usual, is somewhat less dramatic, however if one focusses on the key challenges in Supply Chains in particular, there are immense benefits to be had.

One key consideration when automating Supply Chains is the technology available to automate warehousing operations, such as forklifts, loading, and unloading. There are currently not many options available, however a few manufacturers are working on automated and even autonomous forklifts. One such manufacturer, Gideon offers an Autonomous forklift for loading and unloading.

At Sentispec, we offer, in contrast, an Automation solution, where we focus on retrofitting existing forklifts with AI systems that provide drivers with the means to improve throughput and quality, by notifying them of goods picked up, and where those goods belong. The system warns the driver of any impending errors, and keeps a record and image documentation of all operations.

The key parameters of comparison
In order to choose an appropriate solution, these are the parameters to consider:

  1. Time to Value – how long does it take to outfit a complete warehouse so value can be derived? How about 10 warehouses? 100?
  2. Cost of Deployment – what is the per-warehouse cost of ownership?
  3. Quality improvement – how much can the system lift quality from status quo?
  4. Cost improvement – how much can the system reduce cost from status quo?

Time to Value
Autonomous systems are not yet commodity, which typically means long production times, whereas a retrofit of commodity cameras and tablets onto existing forklifts is readily available. Furthermore, Autonomous systems typically require extensive training an adaptation on a per-site level.

Typical speed of deployment:

  • Autonomous: 2 warehouses / year
  • Automated: 5-10 warehouse / month

Cost of Deployment
Where commodity hardware is used for retrofitting, there is a clear advantage over low-volume Autonomous systems. On top of this is the extent of configuration and adaptation of Autonomous systems, which becomes an ongoing cost, for example every time larger layout changes are made to the warehouse.

Quality Improvement
Notionally, Autonomous should perform best here, however warehouses are complicated environments with frequent exceptions, and in reality we observe that humans are far better suited to that kind of environments than robots, and as such an Automated support system supporting an experienced driver caters for a much wider range of operations while achieving a slightly higher quality level than pure autonomous systems.

Cost Improvement
Autonomous systems are expensive to deploy, operate, and maintain. So expensive that it is hard for any 3PL to make a profit from its deployment whilst maintaining the flexibility required to serve their market. Automated systems however are relatively cheap to deploy and maintain, and have a positive business case.

Best time to ROI:

  • Autonomous: 18 months
  • Automated: 2 months

This is what the comparison looks like

Time to ValueLongShort
Cost of DeploymentHighLow
Quality ImprovementHighHigh+
Cost ImprovementLow/NoneHigh

In summary, the Sentispec Handler solution, being an Automated Support System, is a perfect fit for any logistics operation wanting to move pallets faster and at higher quality.

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