Automation Is the Key to Warehousing During COVID-19
Supply chain managers don’t have to sacrifice worker safety to maintain production levels during coronavirus—warehouse automation can solve the problem.
COVID-19 has infected a great number of essential workers in the United States, leading companies on the front lines to implement new safety processes. While the spread of the virus has been grave enough to warrant shutdowns (take food production facilities, for instance), many businesses have been able to continue operations with the addition of new health measures.
In the interest of employee safety, manufacturers have had to face a hard truth: The best way to keep staff healthy is to reduce the number of workers who are in the building at any given time. This strategy, however, directly thwarts production, which is more critical than ever for essential companies. Together, these factors shine a light on automated technology as a possible solution.
Automation Is Shifting Supply Chain Processes
Elements like e-commerce and labor shortages have been making the case for warehouse and logistics automation since the latter half of the 2010s. However, many manufacturers were only just deciding if they should invest in the technology when coronavirus came onto the scene. Organizations within the warehousing and trucking industries generally aren’t known as early adopters; in fact, 80% of warehouses across the globe didn’t have any process automation in 2016.
However, the COVID-19 threat has been serious enough to put pressure on manufacturers to further the application of automated technology. Many logistics experts agree on one thing: Automation plays a starring role in a post-pandemic world that normalizes social distancing.
Supply Chain Leaders with New Technologies
Let’s take a closer look at two companies that have been at the forefront of incorporating automated technology into their warehouses: Amazon and Walmart.
Amazon has been using automation in its supply chains since 2014 for affordability and efficiency. Here are some examples of the technology that it’s been leveraging:
- CartonWrap scanning and packing technology
- Ground-based robots called Drives that move pallets of merchandise to workers
- Robots with arms that lift items to high shelves and move boxes
- Robots with arms that grab boxes and load drives from a conveyor belt
- A robot with different configurations to fill the gap between Amazon’s human-centric fulfillment centers and robot-centric sorting facilities
Walmart, Amazon’s competitor, started using automated technology in its logistics processes in 2017 for the same purposes. Five examples include:
- Alphabot automated carts, which bring food products to grocery workers
- A robotic broom that cleans floors
- Automated unloading technology for trucks, which sifts through deliveries
- Robots for inventory tracking, which meander through aisles and identify misplaced items
- Pickup Towers, which hold online orders and make pickup easy for customers
The success of Amazon and Walmart has served to boost automation’s claim to fame. The examples they’ve respectively set, combined with the current need to minimize human interaction in supply chains make today’s environment a favorable one to launch automated technology.
The Business Value of Automated Technologies
Let’s dive into the technology. Today’s automated robots and machines are so advanced that they operate independently. While there are tons of automated options to choose from (like WMS and delivery software), we’ll point to forklifts, 3D printing, and robots as technology that can help organizations prevent the spread of COVID-19 and optimize their supply chain processes in the long term.
Forklifts: Manufacturers can buy autonomous versions of these mobile vehicles and see positive ROI in 12 to 18 months. They can expect to pay for the installation, maintenance, sensors, software, and traction control and drivers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration expects companies to record usage, users, and cleaning frequency. One way for organizations to enforce this directive is by instructing forklift operators to verify that they’ve sanitized the machine before clocking out for the day.
3D printing: Also known as “additive manufacturing,” 3D printing can be used in warehouses and logistics processes. 3D printers allow cloud technology to store designs and build parts on the spot, bypassing the need for carriers to move goods from production facilities to warehouses, and finally to customers.
Indeed, 3D printing has been reinforcing supply chain operations during the pandemic. Companies that faced disruptions to their supply lines are leveraging 3D printing for production. Italian startup Isinnova, for instance, began 3D-printing parts in less than a week to combat a shortage of respirator valves. And UPS uses 3D printing in a Louisville micro-factory, which can deliver parts almost anywhere in the world within a couple of days.
Robots: Warehouses can use any number of robots to replace workers during coronavirus, including cleaning robots, goods-to-person robots, mobile picking robots, and collaborative autonomous mobile robots. These machines can do repetitive warehouse jobs that have been deemed too dangerous for staff due to COVID-19, helping manufacturers meet demand during this tough time.
Hospitals, grocery stores, and restaurants are using robots to disinfect surfaces. There’s no reason production plants can’t use them, too. How do they work? With the help of chemical sprayers and ultraviolet light, the autonomous robots sanitize spaces and eliminate the threat of COVID-19. Manufacturers and other logistics companies could invest in these robots to deep-clean warehouses and other facilities now and in the future.
Another lasting application of autonomous technology is goods-to-person robotics. Taking the form of programmable carts, these robots move inventory to packing employees and picking stations. In the context of the pandemic, this technology helps get jobs done with fewer workers and, consequently, decreases the potential for COVID-19 spread.
Next come mobile picking robots, also known as robotic pickers. Using AI, computer vision and grasping technology, these advanced machines can quickly pick and pack with great success. Fewer humans on the conveyor belt means less chance of transmitting COVID-19.
Collaborative autonomous mobile robots are last on the list. Melonee Wise, CEO at Fetch Robotics, says, “Using mobile robots for industrial automation helps maintain social distancing between workers. That reduces the chances for spreading disease.” In terms of implementation, this technology is easier to set up than conveyor belts and other automated systems, which means companies can reap benefits like accommodating fluctuating demand faster.
Warehousing and Supply Chain Technology Trends
In today’s evolving landscape, manufacturing organizations have accepted the need to socially distance employees due to safety concerns. Productivity doesn’t have to suffer, however. By substituting staff for automated technology, businesses can still meet production requirements during coronavirus.