How Robots and Humans Work Together to Improve Warehouse Management

    Posted by John Santagate on Mar 17, 2020 3:05:55 PM

    HJP_Humans-and-Robots-1Rather than using technology to replace human workers, the future of logistics depends on collaboration between humans and robots.

    Modern technology is reshaping the future of the supply chain, and there are a number of challenges facing the logistics industry that can be addressed by robotics. Consider, for instance, a study done by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). This study finds that between 2020 and 2030, labor shortages and imbalances in 25 major economies will be responsible for $10 trillion in lost revenue.[1] This, paired with consumers’ growing expectations of product range and rapid delivery, means that in order to deliver a broader range of products on time, supply chain managers will need to embrace robotics to streamline logistical operations.

    The warehousing industry itself is ripe for disruption. In fact, research done by DHL has found that 80 percent of warehouses are operated manually.[2] The correlating issues pertaining to labor shortages, reliance on manual labor, and the push for digital technologies across industries point to the need for warehousing modernization and digital disruption. However, instead of attempting to replace human workforces, a number of companies are looking to augment the human workforce with warehouse robots. Bionic companies, which are organizations combining the efficiency of technology with human ingenuity, are the key to succeeding in the next decade, as identified by BCG.[3]

    As robots and automation technologies proliferate into warehouse operations, it is important emphasize that this technology will not be replacing human workers in the warehouse. Automation and robots are built to perform tasks, but they are not built for creative problem solving and lack the flexibility and dexterity to eliminate jobs. Just think about it the next time you pick something up with your hand—realize how effortless that move actually was. Then think about the fact that you can do that with any object you can pick up. You see it, you can pick up (unless it’s bolted down or weighs a ton of course).

    Automation technologies and robotics don’t have the same experience. They must be taught, programmed, or enabled with AI in order to handle items. Improvements are being made here, and there are some solutions with these capabilities. But, the human worker remains the most flexible tool for the warehouse.

    The Benefits of Robotics in Supply Chain Management

    Even with some limitations, there are major opportunities for robotics to help make the jobs of humans easier and more efficient all across the logistics industry. One way that automated warehouse robots can enhance the efficiency of logistical operations is by taking over menial or repetitive tasks so that humans can tackle the more complex processes that require strategic thinking. For instance, while humans tend to be better suited for picking and retrieving items, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are more efficient at moving those items over long distances. Non-value adding movement of material in the warehouse is the biggest source of waste in the supply chain. Thus, identifying such movements and automating material movement can drastically help warehousing operations increase productivity and efficiency. According to Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, “Robots don’t take jobs, they take tasks.”[4] Thus, as robotic technology is introduced into the warehouse, the focus is on identifying the tasks to automate while improving the utilization of the human worker in the process.

    Automated warehouse robots have a direct effect on productivity and efficiency in terms of warehouse management, but the benefits they provide can potentially ripple outward in broad, structural ways—saving companies time and money in the process. For example, one of the biggest issues in freight-based transport is the timeliness and availability of inventory on the dock when the truck arrives. Using robots to quickly determine the fastest route for transporting goods allows companies to be responsive to their freight partners, helping to avoid detention fines.

    Autonomous mobile robots also provide improved safety and quality of life for human workers. Item retrieval often requires traveling miles and miles a day, which robots can do faster and more efficiently than their human counterparts. Robots follow optimized, predetermined pathways when traversing a warehouse and have environmental sensors that allow them to detect obstacles in any direction. This makes them more observant than humans, who might be distracted while carrying multiple or heavy objects. The use of warehouse robots therefore increases speed as well as cuts down on the risk of injuries. By transitioning the human worker from pushing cart throughout the facility to focusing on picking and not traveling, warehouses can get more productivity out of their human workers while subsequently reducing risk within the facility.

    The Robotics Supply Chain of the Future

    Demand on warehousing operations is growing more complex every day. This is especially true for those warehouses fulfilling to eCommerce. eCommerce is becoming more critical to the health of businesses, regardless of industry, market, or region, as evidenced by the contribution to total retail sales fulfilled through eCommerce continuing to increase on an annual basis.

    The explosive rise in online sales — combined with a strapped labor market — shows us a future that favors companies recognizing how automation can be used to support and streamline existing operational functions to better serve their customers.

    Robotics and automation are quickly becoming more than a strategic advantage; they’re becoming an integral part of a complete supply chain management. With the help of skilled human labor and efficiency-enhancing robots, companies can adapt to the demands of eCommerce with agility and ensure success in the years to come.

    Topics: process improvement, warehouse automation, Robotics