Jim Lawton is vice president and general manager of robotic automation at Zebra Technologies. He works with clients to implement intelligent automation and advanced robotics to transform their operations with greater efficiency, higher productivity and lower costs. He brings experience in e-commerce, supply chain optimization, and collaborative robotics—experiences that have shaped his passion for helping manufacturing, supply chain, and logistics companies leverage technology to improve business performance.
Lawton holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from Tufts University, an MS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He recently shared his findings DC speed Group Editor-in-Chief David Maloney.
Q. How would you describe the current state of robotic automation?
A: This is hands down one of the most exciting times I have experienced in the 10+ years that I have been in the market. For warehouse and fulfillment operations teams, three trends are creating real urgency for adopting robotics and automation now.
First, there is the pressure of work – both hiring and retaining employees today and recruiting employees in the future. Second, the transformation of the warehouse into an on-demand operation, where there is a much closer connection to the end customer, with all the expectations that come with it. Third, it has never been more difficult to reliably predict what the business and economic environment will be like. For those of us working to build solutions, innovations like collaborative robotics and cloud computing are creating limitless opportunities to help customers solve real problems.
Acquisition of Q. Zebra, long known for data collection devices, mobile computing and printing products retrieve robotics in July 2021. Why did the company decide to expand its portfolio to include autonomous mobile robots?
A: Over the past few years, we’ve seen customers struggle to figure out how best to increase productivity, throughput and accuracy in their warehouses. They ask smart questions like, “How do I use automation?” “What are the best workflows for using it?” “What results can I get from using automation?”
Our customers have really pulled us into the journey they are on to get more out of the solutions they already have with robotics and automation. So we ask ourselves how we can help them with that. With innovations in our devices like wearables, heads-up displays, mobile computers, and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), operations teams can truly achieve the next level of productivity they’ve come to expect from robotics and automation.
Q. You have a background in electrical engineering and computer science. How does this background help you identify potential applications for robotic automation?
A: Growing up I loved building things with an erector set and lego bricks, taking a bunch of parts and building something out of them. I think it was this feeling that finally led me to consider a career in manufacturing and specifically operations where I focus on helping operations teams turn a bunch of individual parts into something greater than the sum of those parts to make parts.
About 10 years ago I became interested in how software was at the heart of the innovation we now expect from our devices – and what that meant for machines more broadly. We’ve seen advances in machine vision, perception and artificial intelligence (AI) that allow us to do things with robots that weren’t possible five or ten years ago. So it opens up new possibilities for using robots in places that can offer much, much more value than ever before.
Q. What are the main benefits of autonomous mobile robots in distribution facilities?
A: First, AMRs free people from walking miles to complete orders. This means that more orders can be filled and shipped every day. Second, AMRs relieve people of the burden of tedious tasks, thereby contributing to a better work environment—a wo [people] rather stay. Third, AMRs are easy to deploy and can be configured for more than a single task, making innovation accessible to operations of all sizes and fundamentally democratizing the ability to benefit from automation.
Q. What is being done to make human workers more comfortable working alongside collaborative robots?
A: The most successful implementations I’ve seen have been with companies that make a fundamental decision at the beginning of a deployment—they include people who work on those processes every day. These people understand the processes and workflow and are in the best position to figure out how to bridge the two so that what is ultimately deployed works in the environment. This engagement goes a long way in allaying fears of losing their job and creates opportunities for workers to explore and recommend other places where robots can add value.
Q. One benefit of autonomous mobile robots is their scalability. How do customers benefit from this when coping with the high season?
A: In the past, fulfillment operations met seasonal spikes by hiring temporary workers. But that is no longer a sustainable strategy. It also doesn’t work outside of seasonal peaks. For example, we have a customer who hires temporary workers to fill the shortage of full-time employees. They hire new temporary workers every Monday morning, and the client says that by lunchtime, an average of 50% of those workers have quit.
AMRs make it possible to avoid this “drop hole” as they can be quickly configured to handle the most urgent tasks at hand, such as: