Working Alongside Robots: No Longer Science Fiction

Working alongside robots in warehouses is the way of the present, rather than the way of the future. The recent ProMat and Automate conferences, in Chicago, featured robotics and automated materials handling equipment. “Solve for X,” the theme of the conference, emphasized the need for manufacturers, warehousing and third-party logistics companies to embrace change to stay relevant.

Rather than focusing on the technological capabilities of these high-efficiency robots, our team attended ProMat & Automate with an eye toward the changing workforce. As we strolled the aisles, observing robots in demonstration booths, we reflected on the results of the 2017 MHI survey. The MHI survey, the fourth in a series of annual industry reports developed in conjunction with Deloitte Consulting, focused on “Next-Generation Supply Chains: Digital, On-Demand and Always-On.” The survey received 1,100 responses from manufacturing and supply chain industry leaders.

Approximately 80 percent of respondents to the survey said automation will dominate the logistics industry in the next half decade. Even more relevant, 61 percent of MHI survey respondents indicated that they view robotics and automation of warehouse materials handling equipment as either a disruption or an advantage in the supply chain industry. For comparison’s sake, 39 percent of respondents to the 2015 MHI survey reported this view on robotics and automation.

According to the survey respondents and other research, using current logistics methods in urban areas is unsustainable. Sorting robots that use flights and pushers within a small warehouse footprint, such as in a tight-spaced urban setting, will maximize efficiency. Small unit robots in warehouses, like Amazon’s Kiva robots, and delivery bot-pods, like Skype founders’ new food delivery venture Starship Technologies, will be key to reducing congestion and gaining efficiencies both inside and outside the warehouse.

In addition to well-known retailers like Amazon and Skechers, at Under Armour’s manufacturing facility, humans and robots already work alongside one another, to a much greater extent than at most other manufacturing facilities.

Technological disruptions are generally considered positive for industries. However, for those in the materials handling workforce, a robotic disruption could seem threatening. We want to help assuage those concerns about potential diminishing warehouse job openings. Instead, warehouse employees should look forward to easier physical labor, less stress and more intellectual stimulation on the job.

Robots can take the pressure off of warehouses and 3PLs during seasonal surges. Robots can take shifts during the hottest or coldest parts of the day and drastically reduce the amount of walking humans need to do on a daily basis picking orders throughout the warehouse.

A New York Times Magazine article published the week of Feb. 23, 2017, emphasized that most robots working alongside humans in warehouses are not eerily human-like, but machine-esque. The reporter implied it is less unsettling to work alongside machines than it would be to work alongside animatronic bots. In this observation, the Times addresses and then debunks a common fear: that robots will replace all human workers. Materials handlers should rest assured that there will always be work that needs to be done by humans, namely work that requires observing and anticipating needs in social situations and work that demands emotional intelligence. Customer service situations, like communicating with a major manufacturer about space needs and limitations, inventory shortages or damage, still require abundant human interaction and interference.

Moreover, a Los Angeles Times article published Dec. 4, 2016, points out that, while fewer warehousing jobs are being added for materials handling tasks, the new job positions pay more, due to the higher skill set required to monitor automated lift equipment. In the coming years, new automation technology should create approximately 15 million jobs, according to Forrester, a research firm. With these new jobs come important consideration factors. For example, lights-out automation would be much more possible with robots, creating a new set of safety considerations, such as creating adaptive zones, complying with new regulations and providing both bots and humans with clear instructions on how to operate within the designated zones.

Has your organization implemented automated lift technologies yet? How much have you saved in operational efficiencies and utility bills? (Automated lift trucks can work in the dark.) The future is now.

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