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This past summer, while visiting a wholesale distributor’s distribution center (DC), I watched receiving personnel spend an afternoon unloading boxes from a tractor-trailer in nearly 100 F heat. This is even before the material is put away on the shelf. From the looks on their faces, they were not happy; you had to feel some empathy for the difficulty of the task and what was still to be done.
It suddenly occurred to me that instead of only thinking about how to design DC/warehouse space around robots, robots are now being built to operate more on our terms, in our spaces and in our environments.
The situation I observed amplified how robotics are now being designed to handle the tough, often menial and accident-prone tasks at warehouses.
Robotics and particularly other forms of automation are not new to logistics. We have conveyor belts, scanners and other innovations that have helped automate and accelerate, for some decades now, the obsession for speed, a characteristic of the distribution industry.
“[However,] the pace of investment and change — fueled by the [COVID-19] pandemic-era e-commerce boom, a tight labor market and a fragile supply chain — has taken off in recent years,” notes The New York Times. “Most experts say robotics will change how warehouses are operated and designed.” Some say that it’s a “golden era” we are entering (https://nyti.ms/3jrCkaH).
“The seeds of the surge in warehouse robotics were planted during the 2008 recession, when carmakers, which depend heavily on robotics, dealt with a significant and prolonged downturn,” the Times article notes. “However, unlike repetitive assembly line manufacturing, warehouses demand a significant degree of flexibility. Only recently have systems such as visioning and artificial intelligence become cheaper and powerful enough to sort the tens of thousands of different products streaming through a DC/warehouse.”
The Association for Advancing Automation notes that the robotics industry saw a 28 percent jump in purchases from 2020 to 2021 — a sign of increased acceptance of the technology. It’s becoming more affordable and moving through the distribution industry beyond the big players. Rueben Scriven, a senior analyst at Interact Analysis who covers warehouse automation, told the Times there will be a 25 percent increase in robotics and automation investment reported for year-end 2022.
Although seemingly fueled by the distribution giants such as Walmart and Amazon that saw logistics as ripe for innovation, they have importantly helped supercharge distribution’s turn toward automation. Other organizations (large and small) with a large labor content have a different perspective: making these jobs more secure and safer while still being focused on using robotics as a cost-saving measure.
They are reducing aspects of human labor in an industry focused on that for decades, but doing so not always by “cutting heads” in a tight labor market.
Robotics Adoption Five-Year Forecast
Adoption of robotics in DCs and warehouses will increase by 50 percent or more in the next five years, according to surveys taken by the Materials Handling Institute, a trade group. The Times notes that the goal is the “mechanical orchestration” of workflow, where autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) with sophisticated software and artificial intelligence, “can move pallets, cartons and piece-pick products in a seamless environment” — in collaboration with the appropriate positioning of warehouse associates.
This includes nearly all the typical warehouse functionalities, from receiving and put-away to picking, order staging and shipping, as well as a myriad of other product transport requirements typical of DCs and warehouses.
Zac Stewart Rogers, a Colorado State University professor focused on logistics and warehousing, told the Times: “Netflix is the only company that could figure out streaming video, and then suddenly it wasn’t.” He see an emerging middle class of robotics users in the distribution industry. Other companies of all sizes will start to catch up.
There’s increased demand for “goods-to-person” robots offered by firms like Zebra/Fetch, Locus Robotics, 6 River Systems and Orange-Grey. “These so-called co-bots, which can look like a bin-carrying Segway, move back and forth among workers throughout the facility,” the Times notes, significantly reducing walking for warehouse associates.
With these robots also bringing cheaper and quicker ways to deploy, some robotics providers have even introduced “robots as a service” business models: leasing these machines to warehouse operators and reducing initial capital costs.
Automation is one major lever that companies can pull. Rather than replacing workers, co-bots will make them more efficient and productive. Human crew chiefs will direct and maintain teams of robots. Robots can also help with your worker recruitment while closing the generation gap among warehouse workers.
It will improve the quality of experience for the workforce because instead of constantly walking and doing rote manual things, individuals will learn how to manage the robot to keep it up and running. It will create a career path and a more sophisticated skill set and make sure the evolution of jobs does not leave long-time workers behind.
Some experts believe that “lights out” warehouses — run by robots around the clock without requiring air conditioning or lighting normally tuned to human needs — will arrive in three or four years, the article notes. I’m not sure about that time frame at all; I need to see more companies in the distribution industry seeing the advantages of increasing efficiency and reducing costs and worker accidents. It amounts to a proven potential for a double increase in throughput, reducing the cost per transaction.
Frankly, I do worry for those owners and senior operations managers who don’t pay attention to this fast-moving trend over the near term. Why? “Even today, [many DCs and] warehouses are just racks, carts and a clipboard,” Erik Nieves, chief executive of Plus One Robotics, told the Times. They’re not going to keep up with the service demands and cost factors to remain competitive.
The through-line is: I really urge you to take the time to learn more about this!
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