There were nearly half a million job openings in the warehouse and transportation industry just over a year ago. And that figure has probably grown since. But a growing narrative is that automation and robotics are taking away jobs. Should warehouse workers be concerned?
With innovations in automation and technology, in general, appearing all the time, what do the next ten years look like for the warehouse industry? What about the next 15 years? Are we headed toward total automation, or will people still be an integral part of warehouse production?
Are Warehouses Really Operating Without Employees?
When robots were first introduced as an automation solution, many workers feared that their jobs would be replaced by “lights out” factories and warehouses. This is an operation that is run entirely without human workers.
But this fear has been largely dispelled. The cost to build build a lights out operation is so significant that few businesses can afford the investment. And the truth is that robotics technology may not yet be at the level necessary to make lights out as efficient as possible.
Robots Filling a Labor Gap in the Warehouse
Labor remains tight across all industries. But it’s especially challenging in logistics, where workers are expected to perform repetitive and mundane tasks. But these environments also require some flexibility. For example, most fulfillment centers deal with a wide variety of items, different quantities in orders, multiple packaging options, and other challenges.
Given these complexities, it makes sense that human workers would still need to be involved. But robots can give them relief from repetitive tasks that lead to job dissatisfaction, safety issues, human error, and inefficiency.
When it comes to applications that integrate robots and workers, most consider solutions like collaborative robots, or cobots, which are robots that work alongside human workers in a semiautomated fashion. An example might be an autonomous mobile robot (AMR) that can move between different warehouse racks but requires a human worker to give directions or perform some intricate functions. In this case, the human worker is less taxed physically but still able to contribute to getting the work done efficiently.
What Are Humans in the Loop Technology Solutions?
The various challenges faced by companies in the logistics industry have driven the development of robotics systems that emphasize “humans in the loop” (HITL). Similar to a cobot situation, where a human works alongside a robot, the employee in a HITL system acts as the robot’s director or supervisor.
HITL systems require human workers for the same reason many office machines or manufacturing machines need them. Someone has to give directions to the robot, change out batteries, or perform other tasks that will keep the robots operating efficiently.
In a warehouse, an employee working with HITL robots will oversee operations, whether they be picking, packing, or inventory management. When an issue occurs, the employee can quickly intervene to resolve it so there isn’t a systemwide interruption.
Reducing Steps and Other Benefits of Leveraging Robotics
While people excel at decision-making and handling challenges using their cognitive abilities, robots excel at performing repetitive and even dangerous tasks. One of the top benefits of using robots in the warehouse is that it makes work less strenuous for the humans.
Some associates in traditional warehouses can walk more than 10 miles in a single day. This leads to fatigue, human error, injuries, and job dissatisfaction. When a facility brings in robots to supplement this work, it reduces this unnecessary walking.
Warehouses that leverage robotics to assist human workers will find that their retention numbers soar as their injury rates plummet. At the same time, they won’t have as much difficulty filling open positions. Productivity will also increase by 2x to 3x.
How Warehouses Are Using Robots Alongside Human Workers
In the U.S. alone, over 1.9 million workers are employed in the warehouse and storage industry. But high turnover rates and injuries make quality and productivity challenging. Here are some ways warehouses are using robots alongside human workers to address these challenges.
Robots can automate your sorting processes to assist with inventory management. When new products come into the warehouse, they need to be stored efficiently. Robots, under the direction of human workers, can perform the sorting functions and move items to the right areas for storage.
Picking robots use technology similar to that of sorting robots. Instead of sending your human workers to search for individual products for order fulfillment, you can have the robots do this job, which eliminates unnecessary steps and a ton of mundane work. Instead, your human staff can oversee these operations and handle any issues that arise with automation.
Robots can also package your products quickly and efficiently. Using a variety of parameters, you can program robots to package items for shipment, whether they require envelopes or different size boxes. The robots can also record these actions in the warehouse management system (WMS) to improve overall traceability and visibility.
Warehouses have historically relied on pallet trucks and forklifts to move pallets and materials from one point to another. Now autonomous vehicles can take over these repetitive functions. This improves safety and frees up employees to focus on other tasks.
If you’re struggling with labor and other supply chain issues, robotics is an ideal solution for your warehouse. Using robots in the warehouse doesn’t necessarily replace your human workers. Instead, it reduces costs, improves efficiency, and boosts the overall productivity of your operation. By automating repetitive tasks, warehouse robots free up staff to focus on more critical tasks, which reduces turnover and makes work safer.