Robots are not a new phenomenon on the factory floor, but having them controlled directly by an ERP system counts as quite a novelty — as a back-office system, ERP doesn't usually get involved in shopfloor operations. But when packaging company Cheer Pack bought a fleet of robots to move items around its facility, the company saw an opportunity to have them take their orders directly from the ERP system.
The autonomous robots were already on order when IT manager Alex Ivkovic visited last year's IFS World show and saw a demonstration of robot toy cars being controlled by an IFS system. That set him thinking — instead of having someone dispatching robots around the factory from a control panel, why not have the ERP system take over that function and do it automatically?
That's what has now been put into practice at the Cheer Pack facility. Previously, this was all paper-based. Someone would start a new shop order and hand the paperwork to a warehouse worker who would physically go and fetch the required items. Now that entire process is automated, he explains:
Previously, each person who was running the machine had to say, Okay, I need this material, and someone from the warehouse would bring them the cart. There had to be all this planning involved in what to go get.
Now ... someone hits a button to start a new shop order. IFS reads that a new shop order has started, it knows what we're running and what's scheduled, and it will send a robot to a particular location to pick up the proper lot of material and fetch it to the machine.
Because the system knows how much has been issued and how much material is needed, replenishment happens automatically:
It's down to a certain point, usually about 20%, it will dispatch the next robot to get the next lot of material without any human intervention whatsoever. No people involved.
More importantly, mistakes are avoided because there are no steps where human error can creep in. The robot simply fetches what's been ordered. It's also working off real-time information, so if a machine breaks down and the job has to move to a new machine, the ERP system simply sends the robot to the new location. This is a huge improvement on the old paper-based system, says Ivkovic:
You get the accuracy of materials going through the plant, making sure there's no mistakes. Whereas if you have somebody manually doing that, then on the shop floor, they may be moving jobs between machines. That means that they've got to go back onto paper. Now it happens fully automatically.
The fleet of eight robots has cost about half a million dollars to acquire, but the expected labor savings are a million and half a year. Ivkovic is at pains to point out that no one has lost their job because of the arrival of the robots. On the contrary, the company is already finding it a challenge to find the necessary labor, and has been able to redeploy its existing staff to other roles:
Here in the northeast, we have a tremendous labour shortage. It's extremely difficult and very expensive to hire people. So every person whose job was dragging these carts around the warehouse, they've all been trained and basically up-jobbed to better or more interesting jobs, quite frankly, than dragging a cart around.
The savings have been multiple. We have the actual labour savings. But on top of that, we've had cases where we then shut the machines down because we didn't have enough help. So that builds on the initial savings, and it's really letting our plant run more efficiently, better customer service, it just pays off in many ways.
So much of the talk of robotics and Internet of Things that we hear from software vendors has little practical merit. Here on the contrary is a real-world example, where building APIs around the IFS ERP core has helped to maximize the effectiveness of a robot deployment on the factory floor by eliminating unwieldy paper-based processes.