Unleash the Cobots

The Chicago Parts Distribution Center is embracing new technology that promises to make parts picking safer and easier for team members

December 03, 2019
Hi-Tech Teamwork -- A Chicago PDC team member scans a part before placing it into the pink bin that's carried up and down the facility's  aisles by a cobot in search of parts ordered by dealers. 

Auto parts picking, on a Toyota scale, is an incredibly complex endeavor.

Take, for example, TMNA’s Chicago Parts Distribution Center — one of 14 PDCs in North America. It annually processes more than 1.7 million parts orders placed by the 153 Toyota and Lexus dealers it serves. These parts are picked and shipped daily to meet the needs of those dealers' customers.

While the team members at this facility routinely handle this task with remarkable efficiency, in the spirit of "Start Your Impossible," the Chicago PDC is leading innovation in warehouse operations.

Cue the cobots. All 32 of them.

“Cobots are different from robots as they work collaboratively with our team members by reducing ergonomic and walking burden on them as they do their work," says Mike Schober, general manager of Supply Chain Operations.

"We have a great culture here that’s open to change and trying new things,” says David Smith, Production Manager at the Chicago PDC.

Working closely with the IS team, Christopher Camden, Senior Analyst of Warehouse Automation and Supply Chain Development, and his colleagues began exploring a range of new technology options in mid-2017. A year later, it had narrowed its search down to the optimal solution and business partner to help deliver it.

The new approach went live this past spring. The system is now fully operational and showing impressive results.

Steps Saved -- Before the introduction of the cobots, team members at the Chicago PDC collectively walked more than
40 miles per day picking parts. Now, the machines cover that ground while the humans patrol specific aisles.

How Does It Work?

A PDC is a like a supermarket on steroids, with tens of thousands of parts stored on shelves across dozens of aisles.

Previously, each team member on the warehouse floor would be given a pushcart, a mobile computer connected to the PDC’s warehouse management system, a scanner and a work assignment of parts ordered by as many as eight different dealers. They’d push the cart down one of the aisles, pick one of the desired parts, scan it and place it in the cart — then continue on to the end of their work assignment.

Once completed, the team member would push the cart back to the packing area and sort the parts into totes for each individual dealer. Those, in turn, would be loaded onto a truck and delivered to the dealers before they opened for business the next day.

It was complicated. It was taxing. And time was of the essence.

"It was a tried-and-true system, though not without its challenges," says Smith. "Parts picking was labor intensive. And the sorting was prone to error, given the need to sort multiple parts ordered by multiple dealers."

Now, within the new system, the cobots convey the parts autonomously. Team members are assigned specific aisles. When a cobot stops in front of a part in their area, the team member picks the part, scans it, applies a label produced by an on-board printer, places it in the tote and then sends the cobot on its way to its next stop.

The Finish Line --  Once a cobot has completed its run for a specific dealer, a team member removes the pink bin and readies it for delivery to the dock.

Further, each cobot picks parts only for one dealer at time. So when it’s made its run and returns to the induction area, the team members there no longer have to sort everything out. They remove the tote full of parts, zip tie it, put a destination label on it and place it on a cart that conveys it to the dock.

Meanwhile the cobot is given a new mission to go forth and pick more parts.

Coexistence with Cobots

The humans and their new assistants are peacefully coexisting.

“The cobots don’t have arms, so they can’t reach out and pick the parts,” says Smith. “It still requires human interaction. “

“The cobots do all of the conveyance,” says Selva Nagarajan, who represented IS on this proof of concept. “The humans do the value-added work. And it’s a big step in the right direction ergonomically.”

Smith says gains are also being made by the PDC in safety, customer service, team member job satisfaction and productivity (up a whopping 42 percent!). In fact, the new system was able to achieve full operating capacity in its first week.

Ready to Roll -- The Chicago PDC has deployed a fleet of 32 cobots to help make the parts-picking process safer and more efficient.

"Toyota has always strived to introduce technology that will improve safety and quality while reducing burden on team members in our manufacturing plants," says Schober. "Cobots, which are uniquely engineered for distribution centers, are just one of the automation tools we can leverage to do the same in our parts supply chain."

“It’s a new way of doing business so it took a while to learn, but now we’ve got our hands around it and are confident we’ll see additional improvements in the near future,” says Camden. “It’s better for our people and better for our dealers, which means it’s better for our customers. There’s no going back to the old way of doing things, that’s for sure.”

By Dan Miller

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