"We've used automation in our manufacturing plants for a very long time, but we really haven't delved too deeply into automation on our warehousing side before," said Mike Schober, vice president of parts supply chain operations for Toyota Motor North America. "And we haven't done a large play like this before, either."
The turtles, which also are used by Amazon, will work in an 86,000-square-foot section of Toyota's 792,000-square-foot Hebron facility, automatically lifting and then delivering sophisticated racks full of auto parts to the human order fillers. The turtles will help maintain inventories as well, delivering those same racks to be refilled by other humans when stocks get low, before returning them to their fenced-off area.
To fully comprehend how much more efficient it will be, Schober says you have to consider that the work currently is being done by humans with stationary racks.
Hebron "is the largest parts distribution fulfillment warehouse in our network, and it's a fast-moving, high-velocity environment," Schober said.
"In this kind of environment, team members end up walking 4.5 to 7.5 miles through the workday to pick parts."
Toyota experimented with other robotic assistants in its parts distribution center in Chicago. There the automaker is using robotic carts that guide a team member to the right rack and highlight the needed part. That solution reduced errors, Schober said, but employees still had to walk around with the parts robots to fill orders.
The Kentucky project will go live in March 2022, Schober said, and shows great promise.
"We certainly expect a double-digit improvement in efficiency because of the fact that you eliminate the need to do all the walking," he said.