Warehouse robots are just one form of warehouse automation, but they’re making a big impact. From greater flexibility and scalability to productivity gains, a faster ROI compared to other automation solutions and better resource management, warehouse robots are changing the face of warehousing.
But what does that mean for industry employment? There’s no question that innovative technologies aid in logistics and supply chain management, but when it comes to the many labor-intensive processes that take place in the warehouse, some fear that robots could make human warehouse workers obsolete. In reality, warehouse robots are augmenting the work of humans, streamlining tedious, repetitive tasks and reducing errors, while also easing the physical demands on warehouse workers.
To gain some insight into how today’s industry professionals view the potential impact of warehouse robots on industry employment, we reached out to a panel of warehouse and automation experts and asked them to answer this question:
“What’s your take on warehouse robots? Are they ‘good’ or ‘evil’ for industry employment? Will they help or hurt more?”
Meet Our Panel of Warehouse & Automation Experts:
NOTE: The statements below reflect the opinions of the individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of 6 River Systems. Read on to find out what our panel had to say about the impact of warehouse robots on industry employment.
Sarah Boisvert is the author of The New Collar Workforce and founder of Fab Lab Hub that offers Digital Badges for skills such as 3D printing, robotics, CAD design and AI in manufacturing.
“Robots have been successfully used in manufacturing for…”
…decades and expansion to warehouse applications is a natural extension of their functions. At least for now, robots are really co-bots, collaborating with humans to do the boring, repetitive jobs which frees humans to take on more complex tasks.
Humans are still needed to design, program, monitor and yes, repair, robots. And it is humanity, not machines, that innovates.
Eric worked for three years as a Manufacturing Group Leader and Kaizen Event Leader at OC Tanner, the world’s premier enterprise culture-building facilitator. He is now the Owner and Business Manager of Robot Cleaner Store.
“At the core of the issue, warehouse robots are really no different from any other form of automation that has changed industries…”
…since the automated loom, the cotton gin, ticket kiosks and assembly robotics. Mindset of management, and subsequently their people, is arguably the most critical component of any warehouse automation implementation.
Uncertainty bedevils all automation installations. People know that the machine is going to take their place on the line, in the driver’s seat or in the cubicle, but they don’t know what will happen to them in the aftermath. Responsible management recognizes and teaches that automation is meant to support humans and that humans are meant to do higher-function work until automation or product obsolescence catch up. On a smaller scale, take robotic vacuum cleaners. Nobody freaks out about a robot vacuum in the house; they don’t like doing the job anyway, and they’re happy to have time for something else. Warehouse robots are the future, plain and simple. Management is the X factor. The responsibility of management is to create a respectful space for people to grow and adapt to do other things that still add value for the customer.
David Martinez is the VP of Enterprise & OEM Business Account Manager at Cybernet Manufacturing.
“As with all talk of automation, much of its ubiquity is overblown.”
Warehouse robots outright replacing jobs may not be very common. Automation is very good at replacing tasks (called augmentation), certainly, but ousting entire jobs is tough. Humans are extremely versatile and durable and not likely to be considered obsolete for a long time, if ever.
This chart from the MIT Technology Review shows a picture of how little everyone agrees on how/if automation replaces jobs, while this article for Forbes does a good job of explaining how automation has affected jobs through history (on the wider scale, it actually tends to create more jobs than it replaces).
Of course, individual low-level jobs may be lost, that’s very true. But for the larger industry and job market, it usually means more jobs are created simply because productivity usually increases, which increases all of the support jobs around that productivity. It also allows existing employees to spend less time lugging boxes or finding inventory and more time doing the more complex parts of their job that are difficult to automate.
Plus, warehouse robots (drones, AMRs and AGVs) are still very fickle and fragile and require intense programming and integration with inventory systems and networked devices. Those inventory systems require more attention because of this (a human gig), as do programming and maintenance.
So, some low-skilled labor may be lost to some extent, but skilled labor will only increase.
Emily earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Santa Cruz, for her major in Film and Digital Media and has experience in writing, publication and teaching. She is now an Editor at Aggregage for the site Supply Chain Brief.
“The mass implementation of warehouse robotics is a sensitive subject, and…”
…the primary fear surrounding this automation is the loss of employment. But more robots do not mean fewer jobs. An example of this mentality would be the introduction of Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) in the late 70s and early 80s. Several people believed that the use of this technology would dramatically reduce available employment opportunities, but in turn, they allowed for more jobs to open by reducing the operation costs of banks.
The current e-commerce revolution and demand for faster last-mile delivery actually requires warehouses to run as efficiently as possible. Therefore, the use of new technology, such as warehouse robots, is make or break for your business. There always tends to be some fear surrounding the introduction of new technology, but warehouse robots are ultimately not evil, and many need a collaborative environment in order to run productively. This means that the joining of forces between human and robot workers is not only ideal, but good for industry employment.
Cody Swann is the CEO of Gunner Technology.
“The interesting thing about warehouses jobs is that…”
…they have always been better suited for robots than humans.
Repetitive work, long hours, unfavorable climate — these are all areas where robots would thrive and people just don’t.
What happened was that as more customers moved to online retail, those brick and mortar retail jobs were eliminated (such as cashiers) and they naturally gravitated to what was available, which was warehouse jobs filling orders.
Soon, robots will replace those jobs, too. And while that may put some people out of jobs, again, in the long run, this will be better for those people who will see an increase in purchasing power from cheaper goods and those who are freed from a poorly suited position to pursue better jobs.
Robert DeStefano is a senior product marketing manager at Ivanti Supply Chain. He has more than 18 years of experience helping businesses understand the value of mobile technology solutions when it comes to boosting worker productivity and enforcing mobile security.
“Automation is a natural option for logistics firms to…”
…keep pace with demand for faster shipments. Robots and other forms of AI work alongside human workers to speed transactions. Example: the picker who doesn’t need to walk through the warehouse because the shelf came to him. The change brought on by automation is significant. With regards to talent, for example, the day-to-day tasks of workers will change. Sure, they adapt, but new skills will come into play. They’re going to be interacting with computers on a scale that many people only can relate to in sci-fi movies.
At the same time, the growing field of study focused on supply chain management will offer opportunities for new hires. These workers will escort this new age of AI through the loading dock. Further, timing is something that the supply chain is always worrying about. It’s about making that quick decision to prioritize an order so it makes it onto a truck that’s about to go. It’s also about workers having the time to focus on tasks that add more value. Automation and robotics can complement the workforce — performing the repetitive, low-skill tasks and freeing up workers to do more high-value activities.
Geoff Whiting is a B2B technology consultant and content strategist focusing on logistics, WMS, AI and how it all interacts with people. He sees the robot revolution as an opportunity to protect workers and prioritize the work they enjoy and take pride in doing.
“Robots aren’t good or bad; they’re a tool…”
It all depends on who uses them and how they incorporate warehouse workers in these efforts. In general, they’re good news for industry development, but it requires companies and leadership to look out for the safety of workers as much as the safety of the business. Workforce shortages are going to push a lot of automation and robots can be a big help in this regard. Companies who run their own warehouse (or those who outsource distribution) can find it more affordable to have a mix of humans and robots. It makes demand planning a little easier and helps companies hit those 2-day and 3-day delivery windows that every customer — even B2B — has come to expect.
A fully autonomous warehouse isn’t a near-term reality. What today’s innovation is often focusing on is speed and accuracy of order picking. If you ask anyone who has worked in a warehouse after a long shift, they’re generally appreciative of all the assistive technology that makes it easier to reach, pickup and transport objects, whether they are autonomous or not. What I hope to start seeing more of are things like the exosuit that gained Lowe’s a lot of acclaim in 2017. Making that smart and able to interact with a variety of other warehouse robots could keep a lot of workers safe, even when hours get long.
Of course, everyone is going to mention Amazon and the punctured bear repellent spray. A robot picker has been deemed to be the culprit. That shows we have a long way to go, but it might be a bigger indicator of a problem with a company, and not robots in a general sense. The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health has Amazon at the top of its Dirty Dozen list. It also points to smarter use. Amazon has had relatively few reported issues with its Kiva robots, and it could be that these only operate along designated tracks so there is minimal chance for a mishap with a human. Again, it’s all about being smart and prioritizing the health and safety of your workers. Accidents happen in warehouses. The goal of robotics should be to minimize the harm that’s possible, and it requires a robust group of people from the programmers and testers to installation and maintenance teams, warehouse workers and managers.
Alan Majer is the founder of Good Robot. He works on research, prototyping and new product development for a variety of corporate clients. Against the advice of experts, Alan is also working on a general purpose AI which may become self-aware one day.
“Are robots good or evil? It’s an important question…”
…and given that my company is called Good Robot, you could rightly accuse me of some bias on this topic. But if the truth be told, it’s a question that I struggle with every day. The answer I used to believe is that technology is an inevitable force of good: it will ultimately take us to a better destination in the future, and robotics in particular (warehouse or otherwise) will improve things by eliminating tasks involving physical danger or physical drudgery. However, I no longer believe it’s that simple.
That’s because robots are improving their capabilities at a blistering pace. It’s no longer a question of whether they will exceed human capacities, but when. As an analyst/futurist, I used to chart the progress of Moore’s Law in an effort to predict when the typical computer would reach human-levels of processing power. When AlphaGo beat Lee Sedol to become the world’s GO champion (nearly a decade ahead of most predictions), I changed how I thought of these kinds of calculations. AlphaGo made me realize that human-level performance is not only due to technology improvements, but on how much humans are willing to spend on it. In the case of AlphaGo, it beat the world’s best human player years ahead of schedule because AlphaGo’s creators were willing to spend a lot to reach their goal: approximately $30 million dollars on a few days worth of supercomputing power to teach it to be the best. That’s why it won.
So, today I ask a much more useful question: how much money would it take to simulate the equivalent power of a human brain with current technology? The answer is around $3 billion, give or take. It’s comforting to know that our brains are so valuable today. However, given the steady march of technology improvements, we’ll continue to subtract a 0 from that price tag every decade or so and also apply machine learning to narrow areas of expertise where machines can achieve world-class performance with only a fraction of human-like processing power. The result is that machines will eventually (someday) exceed human capacity at economical prices. So the idea that displaced workers doing dangerous or unlikable tasks can find more desirable work elsewhere is almost certainly true today, but unlikely to remain true in the future. At some point, machines will be good at all work, not just the simple, repetitive or dangerous tasks that are today’s low-hanging fruit.
So back to the main question: good or evil? The answer depends on us… the choices that we make as individuals and as a society. Earlier, I said that I no longer believe that technology is an inevitable force for good. It’s a bad move to be a technology passenger, relying on pure faith that it will take us to a better future — we may not like that destination. Instead, we need our hands on the steering wheel, guiding technology, AI and robotics to a better future. It will involve many interesting and sometimes difficult choices. But a greater understanding of the path that we’re on and the technologies available to us can help us build a better road to the future.
Stephen operates Commercial Forest Products out of Fontana, California. They supply wood and wood components to furniture, musical instrument and flooring companies. Southern California is an expensive place to operate, so many of their manufacturing customers have embraced robotic solutions.
“Warehouse robots are an increasingly attractive investment for many labor-intensive organizations…”
…for which workers’ comp, insurance and minimum wage legislation are rising faster than gains in productivity.
Are reliable, highly efficient machines displacing increasingly expensive manual laborers? Yes, but the question is about overall industry employment. Robots are here. They are getting more specialized, and their ROI periods are getting shorter. They are not going anywhere. It is not good or evil; it just is.
The new employment opportunities will not be in manual labor-intensive areas. This is happening even in parts of the world where labor wages are relatively low. Maintaining a manual labor workforce when it makes no economic sense to do so is not sustainable. That would be a worse long-term course of action for industry employment.
Kevin Lawton is the founder of the brand new distribution and logistics blog called TheNewWarehouse.com, which focuses on warehouse startups, transitions and change. He has been in distribution operations for six years and has been part of starting four new distribution centers for three different companies as well as on teams for multiple automation and system transitions with his focus being on inventory control.
“Warehouse robots are becoming more prevalent as service level demands get tighter….”
…and increase to meet these service levels, like same day shipping. To achieve the volume needed in a cost effective way, robots are necessary. I believe that robots are good for the warehousing industry as it will help to eliminate unwanted jobs and create elevated jobs. There are multiple robots currently that can perform different tasks like picking, unloading and pallet wrapping. Eliminating some of these mundane jobs will provide an opportunity for other jobs to open up, such as working with the robots and maintaining them.
From an employment perspective, there are definite positives for employers, such as cost saving and time spent training. It also helps to combat the lack of skilled workers available for the industry. As more warehouses pop up, the available labor pool gets smaller. For employees, it can be a scary thing because they are unaware if robots will replace them. From the robots that I have seen currently, they do not pose a threat as a person is still needed to either begin or finish the robot’s task. As time goes on, though, it is inevitable that some jobs will be lost to robots.
Dave Popple, PhD
Dave Popple, PhD is the President of Psynet Group.
“From the corporate perspective, any company that does not use robots will have to recover the margins some other way.”
I read recently that a robot can complete more work in an hour at $3 in costs than a human at $15. Therefore, I am not sure organizations will have the option if they want to compete.
Sociologically, automation of all types, whether robots in warehouses or quants and algorithms on Wall Street, mean that we will have to accept in the near future that society does not need everyone to work for it to thrive. In a utopian view, this would allow people to make art or serve humankind. However, it is more likely to create class issues.
Dan is the CEO and Co-Founder of WorkStep, a career growth platform for the industrial workforce and their employers. Dan is a native of Portland, Oregon and a graduate of Stanford University. He was also a recent Entrepreneur in Residence at leading Silicon Valley VC firm Social Capital.
“Though the word ‘robots’ may conjure images from the Terminator series…”
…when it comes to the warehouse, it’s better to think of robotics as a tool of the trade rather than a competitive presence. The first forklift was introduced in the early 20th century, automated storage and retrieval systems have been in place since the 1960s and warehouse robotics have been around since well before Amazon made a splash with their acquisition of Kiva Systems 7 years ago. In the same way that industrial workers have historically had their workload generally improved by technology, so too will the modern warehouse worker.
While it’s accepted that warehouse robotics will improve logistics jobs for some, that typically comes with the caveat that it will put jobs at risk for others. But that’s not what we’re seeing. Warehouse employment has grown 27% since the BBC wrote an article entitled “The rise of warehouse robots” in 2012. We think robots will ultimately be a net-positive in the warehouse.
Just because total employment rises even as productivity per worker increases, however, it doesn’t mean that nothing changes. Jobs change because of technology. A warehouse job which used to involve almost nothing but heavy lifting now requires operation of voice or light-based picking technology and complex machinery. In the near future, there may be less human time spent picking, but more will need to be spent designing and testing warehouse automation systems, maintaining warehouse robotics and improving automated logistics workflows.
Charlie Wilgus is the General Manager of the Manufacturing & Supply Chain Executive Search Division at Lucas Group, North America’s premier executive search firm.
“I’d want to know how it would impact…”
…labor. Would efficiencies create a reduction of general labor force? Would it require more specialized labor force to manage/troubleshoot the automation?
Order management. How would the automation tie into order management (think about interaction with SAP or something similar)? Existing technology? New technology?
Supply chain. How would this flow down through transportation? Would it give increased visibility? What potential challenges would automation create? How would this impact the dock (unloading/loading challenges)?
I would also add that automation needs to be flexible to allow for the flow of product in an efficient manner throughout the warehouse without bogging down the process, thus adding inefficiencies and undue operating costs. Implementing a warehouse management system to manage the flow of goods is critical, as well. Having the right plan and people in place in case your new automation system goes down is also essential. Downtime without a plan and the right people can be extremely costly.
An IBM futurist and top expert recommended by LinkedIn, Brian Carter has been a trusted influencer for over a decade. He’s built programs and has been a keynote speaker for companies like Microsoft, NBC-Universal, Citrix, Marketo and Salesforce, as well as small businesses. He delivers motivational keynotes with practical takeaways based on his 15 years of cutting-edge work.
“Warehouse robotics may have a negative impact on some jobs…”
…but robots are increasing efficiency, flexibility and revenue. Robots and warehouse management systems are essential for maximizing warehouse space (for example, picking from heights that wouldn’t be safe for humans). Robots are not just impacting existing jobs; they’re creating new jobs, too. And, in a time when warehouses are having difficulties finding all the good human workers they need, robotics solutions are needed, even if just to fill that HR gap.
David Armendariz is the general manager of the Information Technology practice group for Lucas Group. He has spent his entire 15-year career with the executive search firm since graduating from the University of Houston with a BBA in Marketing and is based in Houston, Texas.
“Robots and automation provide an incredible amount of benefits in the manufacturing process…”
…including reduced costs, higher levels of quality and increased production speed. In addition, the data gathered through machine learning and IoT applications can drive increased value across a manufacturer’s supply chain.
Oliver Wessling is a mechanical engineer, cyber security expert, founder of NOS Microsystems and creator of getPlus, the intelligent electronic software delivery (ESD) ecosystem that supports over one billion digital transfers annually for the industrial automation sector.
“Warehouse robots will result in less menial warehouse jobs, but…”
…create other jobs for people needed to maintain the robots. The unskilled workforce can still do things robots can’t. Care assistants for the elderly, for example, needs human interaction, and the population is aging. Back in the warehouse, robots will be taking care of mundane tasks, but they need more attention than most people realize. Robots can do the job more quickly, don’t get sick, don’t complain about the long hours and can do jobs deemed too dangerous for humans, but they are high maintenance and the assumption that they work for free is not true. They are expensive and skilled people are needed to make sure they run properly.
A panic about humans losing their jobs to robots has been echoing since the very beginning of production-line automation, but people are still there, and they always will be. Smartphones, for example — the poster child for our modern, high-tech life — are one of the most handmade products on the market. How they are produced is three steps behind current automation processes. Because of the size of the devices and the many components involved, it is less complicated and cheaper to have humans on that production line. People are more adaptable than machines and don’t need to be reprogrammed when they have to move from one task to the next.
Recently, I was in a modern factory warehouse to witness the marvel of the self-driving vehicles at work in an unmanned warehouse. The vehicles are programmed to deliver goods to the floor, but can only deliver to designated spots. If a delivery needed to be made quickly or to another spot, a man-driven forklift truck was used. This unmanned warehouse wasn’t unmanned at all. It needed a team to do the same job as the vehicles only more efficiently, not to mention the team needed to maintain robots. This will always be the case.
Maxim Khabur is a Marketing Director for OneCharge Li-ion Batteries. Maxim’s former positions include those of Managing Director at Young & Rubicam Moscow, Added Value Moscow and Senior Marketing Manager at TNK-BP. Maxim has a Master degree from HULT Business School (Boston, USA) and Master from Plekhanov Russian State Economy Academy.
“From what we hear from our clients, AGVs (automated guided vehicles) are…”
…finding some traction, indeed, and increase the overall efficiency of the fleet of lift trucks. The number of operators is not really decreasing, because the surplus of man hours is used for different, more complicated and less repetitive tasks and operations. So automation is not replacing the operators now, but supplying tools for simpler and repetitive tasks.
Where OneCharge batteries are concerned, it is the hardest task of all, because AGVs can operate on 24/7 basis, and a battery still needs to be charged. Even with just two hours for 100% quick charging, it is substantial downtime, so the clients need to calculate and choose between having two batteries per truck (and investing in a spare battery and personnel to change the batteries of an AGV for continuous 24-hour operations) or accepting two hours of downtime per day.
Denise is the CEO of VeraCore. VeraCore has been providing SaaS order and warehouse management software to 3PLs, fulfillment companies, printers, e-retailers and marketing service providers for over 35 years.
“Robotics are good for industry employment.”
All companies are interested in automation and streamlining processes (i.e., increasing productivity and profitability).
Challenges: So far, this is only commercially viable for homogeneous projects (i.e., shoe boxes of the same size). Innovative companies like 6 River Systems that use co-bots (collaborative robots that augment the work of humans) will help solve more complex projects. To date, this is very expensive and not in reach for small-mid size companies, but prices are coming down.
We expect to see more of this. Co-bots will make things easier, improving productivity, making jobs easier and allowing employees to focus on more rewarding work, not tedious work.
Jason Provancher is the Principal Consultant at JRT Consulting with experience in bringing in automation to the warehouse space.
“Labor tends to be the highest expense by percentage of cost when you analyze what actually is spent to move goods to the customer…”
…and that’s even before you consider the soft costs of product damage, absenteeism, etc. Adding robotics and/or automation is a natural consideration to try to reduce the overall costs of moving goods to market. The cost of automation is still very high, but with advances being driven by on-highway autonomous vehicles, these costs will come down dramatically in the coming years.
Short-term robotics will only impact labor in large, well-established warehousing operations where there is sizeable funding (and patience) to get a system up and running. The most likely applications are new facilities designed from the beginning to be robotically run. In this case, the robots aren’t taking existing jobs, but they are preventing new jobs from being created.
In most smaller facilities or warehousing sites that are less active, the return on investment for robotics is less attractive, and workers are likely safe for the foreseeable future. But this does create an opportunity for a smart machine to help the warehouse worker. This is something we looked at while I was working in material handling where we began to design in different aids to help make the warehouse worker more efficient. For example, the worker would still need to drive the forklift, but the forklift could help the operator judge height and distance to more quickly stack items or put them away on a higher rack position. For an experienced worker, these aids wouldn’t be much of a benefit, but for a less experienced operator, this could quickly improve productivity. This is of particular benefit for warehousing and material handling operations that see a seasonal peak at the holiday season every year. In this case, automation or semi-automation could really help the warehouse worker.
Rob Miller is part of Internal Sales Management at Balluff LTD.
“Employment within a robotic warehouse will not fall but will cause a slight shift in labor.”
The warehouse will need workers to help maintain and operate the robots. This will lead to more highly skilled people being employed. The other option is to take the low skilled workers already employed and train them on the skills needed to operate and maintain the robots.
This will also create new jobs for the training aspect if the company has an internal training team.
Gregg Arneson is the Sr. Search Consultant Practice Leader — Automation & Process Technologies for SCN- Search Consulting Network. The firm is a leading search consulting and recruiting firm in the broad stroke industrial space.
“As the intralogistics space continues to rapidly grow and evolve, the increase of robotics and artificial intelligence is inevitable…”
Warehouse robots are here to stay!
Is it a good thing? I think so. Efficiencies achieved through automation result in a reduced price for consumers. Efficiency in anything is good.
There are certainly challenges though for society with the increased growth of warehouse robots. Namely, workers who traditionally performed the manual labor in the warehouse will need to learn new skills, such as programming PLCs or the robots themselves. We are sure to see a decreased demand for forklift drivers and order pickers, but in turn we can expect to see an increase in maintenance, technicians, programmers and coders. Employment in the industry will continue to grow overall, but this growth will shift, and we will see fewer employees in the physical warehouse and more working for the manufacturers, integrators and suppliers of robotic solutions.
Antony Zagoritis is the CEO of a jewelry manufacturing company, Lapigems Gem Company.
“We use robot technology in our jewelry manufacturing business to sort and carry within our warehousing facility…”
The advantage to the business in terms of productivity and cost savings has been huge. It has meant that we have laid off quite a number of manual staff and casual workers though, which has impacted negatively on the local community. On the plus side, some of our long term warehousing staff were retrained and now work in the robotics maintenance department. These jobs are more technical and higher pay, so for these workers it has been a good change, albeit a painful one initially. There are definitely pros and cons, but in the long term, my feeling is that it has been a change for the good of the company.
Curt Doherty is the CEO of CNC Machines Network.
“We are a leading supplier to the manufacturing industry which has been transformed…”
…into both digital and automation technologies. Robotics has allowed repetitive and strenuous jobs to be replaced, allowing workers to focus on technical and problem solving challenges. The challenge for the worker is whether they can grow into a more valued asset in solving problems for the company.
Alexander Miasoiedov is the Product Engineer at Mav.farm. He is a Former Software Engineering Manager and Head of CV Backends at Ring.
“Warehouse robots will be a blast for an entire new niche of employment opportunities.”
The maintenance, repair, recalibration and orchestration of these autonomous robotic instruments will create a variety of jobs in this sector and help in transitioning from physically boring to mentally challenging routines for humans. They will also facilitate a more human-centered and self-motivated work environment while also creating the ability to work from a comfortable place. These robot tasks will also have the benefit of enhancing our existing productivity by offering new opportunities for self-growth and growth of our existing business and industries. The new technology will allow us to offer innovative and unique solutions for many new manufacturing and business jobs.
We’ve recently seen new, advanced and complex automation and robots in manufacturing and services industries that only improved the quality of life for entire nations.
Tom Stretar is the VP of Supply Chain Solutions at enVista.
“It is becoming increasingly important for companies to…”
…support the blend of robotics, distribution center automation and human labor to meet the needs of customers. Customers continue to expect shorter and shorter delivery times, from two-day to one-day, and with same-day on the horizon. Low unemployment, coupled with job openings exceeding the number of available workers, is causing industries like distribution to look to strategies involving robots to meet fulfillment needs.
Furthermore, employee turnover continues to increase in the highly physical tasks which are found in distribution centers, such as trailer loading and unloading. These tasks, which are undesirable to current industry employees, would be very well suited for robotics. Robotics is not and should not be a means for replacing human labor; instead, robotics should allow for more flexible working schedules to be implemented for the human labor which will still be required.
Robert Longley is a coach and consultant who works with a variety of businesses. In the past, he has done warehousing and maintenance management planning. One of his blogs, Outsourcing Choices, covers outsourcing topics and different options for different types of businesses.
“Robots are an inevitable addition to most warehouse operations…”
…it’s just a matter of how far they can go. Newer warehouses will most likely be designed with robots in mind rather than humans. Older warehouses will have to find robots that can adapt to their layout. The starting price for a warehouse robot is generally less than the cost of the average worker’s salary. A lot depends on what they can do. Can they only load and unload pallets and containers? Or can they pick individual items, package and ship? Warehouse organization will also be a key factor if there are ladders, ramps or narrow isles. Some warehouses may need to be redesigned to take full advantage of robots.
Processes are likely to be reexamined in terms of functions and the types of robots that can perform them. We aren’t likely to see human-like robots taking over our warehouses. It’s not practical and would probably be expensive. It’s more likely that there would be multiple variations of limited function robots that might do one or two tasks each.
Many warehouses are already implementing hybrid approaches where humans do the more complicated functions and work together with the robots. In the long term, we are likely to see more manufacturing that might have been outsourced to other countries returning to the United States. Unfortunately, most of the jobs that were eliminated will not be returning.
Over the next decade, many repetitive jobs, including professional jobs such as lawyers and accountants, will be replaced by robots and artificial intelligence.
Lisa Richter is industry director of the Control System Integrators Association, where she helps members grow their business, share industry expertise and advance the industry of control system integration. She also hosts the popular Talking Industrial Automation podcast.
“Robotics in automation will be a disrupter, but the net job gain will be an increase.”
Robots often do jobs that people don’t want to do because they are dirty, dangerous or monotonous. These people are now freed up to do more interesting jobs, like programming, maintaining and monitoring the machines, including robots, on the manufacturing floor.
Piyush is the CEO and Founder of Simpalm, a mobile and web technology company based in Washington, DC. He started the company in 2009 and grew it to a team of 35 with a presence in DC and Chicago. They have delivered more than 250 mobile and web products to their clients, which include startups, enterprises and government.
“Warehouse industry is driven by logistics and manual work.”
This can be easily automated using robots. Robots can receive the orders, go to the right shelf to pick the items and bring it out for delivery. This can reduce the manual work in the warehouses. The overall management and quality control should be done by humans, but robots can do lower-end work. It can also reduce shipping and handling costs for e-commerce and logistics companies.
Hassan Alnassir is the founder & owner of Premium Joy, a toy business selling educational foam toys for kids.
“Contrary to common thinking, I believe warehouse robots are generally good for industry employment…”
While you need fewer workers in the building when using robots, there will probably be a demand to hire other people for maintaining those machines and making sure they’re working properly all the time, including maintenance engineers and technicians. Not everything in the warehouse can be automated through utilizing machines, e.g., you will still require operators at pickup stations to receive the products delivered by robots for processing orders. Fewer jobs in the warehouse with robots usage isn’t necessarily bad for employment, as it can sometimes motivate people to pursue higher education and aspire for better careers.