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Bring In the Robots: Augmenting Manual Labor to Improve Productivity


By Matt Wicks, Contributor

In many distribution centers, manual operations are still the norm, but that business model has become increasingly unsustainable, exacerbated by staggering labor shortages throughout the industry. In fact, manual operation is still the norm for approximately 80% of distribution centers. What’s more, as e-commerce fulfillment operations become increasingly complex, due to evolving consumer expectations, distribution centers must keep pace with the speed at which customers expect orders to be handled.

On average, e-commerce orders are increasing at a rate of about 25% annually—pushing fulfillment centers to the limits of their capacities. In fact, according to eMarketer, online shopping currently accounts for nearly 15% of total retail sales and is expected to grow to 22% by 2023, representing over $6.5 trillion in sales. So, how are distribution centers positioning themselves to stay ahead of this curve?

The demand for labor has increased significantly, as e-commerce fulfillment requires more labor per item, and as distribution centers pick and pack more individual online orders. Hence, more facilities are turning to smarter, more versatile mobile robots to help them function at levels far higher than ever before. This presents its own set of challenges, however, as 60% of supply chain jobs today require skills that only about 30% of the workforce currently possesses. This is if and when workers can be found; many jobs turn out to be repetitive or even dangerous, in some cases. This results in high turnover, low morale and the need to constantly retrain workers—all at a steep cost.

Building a Framework for Your Approach

The solution, then, may require a multifaceted approach to identifying key underlying challenges. The first involves figuring out how to augment overall productivity within distribution centers. Bolstered by the latest advances in mobile robotics, vision systems, sensors, voice technology, mobility and other solutions, warehouses are able to reap the benefits of more cost-effective methods to maximize overall productivity when it comes to sortation, shipping and receiving.

But, automation in warehousing and distribution centers can pose new challenges. Products and packaging materials are always changing, while logistics needs dictate the movement of orders through the fulfillment process. Complicating things a bit is the issue of mobile robots and manual workers coexisting in the same space—making it difficult to navigate these environments.

This is why it is critical that investment in robotics remain stable and healthy—so automated technologies may continue to advance at a rate that allows them to begin navigating warehouses with a human-equivalent level of awareness and flexibility. Since 2012, investors have poured approximately $3 billion into new robotics projects—including everything from industrial automation to self-driving cars to surgery. This industry is certainly making strides, but roadblocks, including skills gaps and general wariness of robots, continue to stall the adoption process for new solutions. That said, the latest wave of mobile robots addresses many of these challenges by supporting some of the most labor-intensive areas, thus taking on burdens of the most physically demanding and injury-prone jobs.

Navigating Today’s Robotic Landscape

Logically, figuring out which mobile or automated robotic solution may be the best fit for a particular fulfillment center is the next challenge. Not every distribution center will require the same level of support when it comes to automation. And, today’s robots can address so many vexing roadblocks to ensuring timely and accurate fulfillment, deciding where to start can be overwhelming.

For instance, mobile robots are now able to handle unloading more efficiently than ever before. Fully automated unloading solutions exist for delivery trucks and shipping containers, relieving major manual labor demands. Similarly, robotic sorter induction systems can replace or supplement manual induction, improving productivity while alleviating workers from monotonous tasks. Because these technologies are designed to work within existing workflows, integration costs and technical risks remain low.

Even more helpful to manual workers are autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), which can transport cargo loads up to 3,300lbs by using superior vision and mapping technologies to navigate warehouse environments. For warehouses, this only requires a short integration period—as the robots require little time to familiarize themselves within their surroundings, allowing them to avoid obstacles from people to machinery.

Embracing the Bots, While Boosting Efficiency

After figuring out how to boost productivity and which robotic solutions may be best for the task, distribution centers must then focus on attracting and retaining skilled workers. Many distribution center operators already recognize that implementing automation is the key to staying competitive, yet manual labor—which is still critical to the overall operation—continues to become harder to find and retain. Worker wages are increasing, while the demands of consumers are growing rapidly. For instance, low-cost (or more often, no-cost) shipping is high on consumers’ priority lists, followed by customized order specifications, as well as two-day or same-day delivery.

Manual workers are finding it difficult to keep pace with today’s expectations without the added support of connected, mobile solutions. To help mitigate challenges for manual workers, while swiftly and sensibly integrating mobile robots, distribution centers need to focus efforts on smooth design and integration. This will enable them to make the best use of employees, while also addressing peripheral, yet equally critical challenges, such as selecting the most optimal times to schedule equipment maintenance—all while minimizing downtime during peak delivery seasons (such as back-to-school and holidays).

However, even the most conscious warehouse may struggle to fill warehouse jobs with manual workers, with 600,000 going unfilled in 2017. These conditions breed fierce competition within a severely limited workforce, leading to high turnover (36% for warehouse workers, alone). With this challenge in mind, the previously far-fetched advances that address the underlying concerns and woes of physical employees have now entered the real world—and workers have begun to embrace them.

Looking Ahead

Whether a warehouse is struggling with worker shortages—high turnover and retraining, or a desire to utilize existing support more efficiently—it’s now possible to have the best of both worlds. Industry reports show that 60% of senior executives identify technological advancements as having a significant impact on workforce capability requirements, allowing manual workers to interact with technology as they do in their personal lives. This alleviates concerns when it comes to operations, as well as the support that sees it all through to the point of fulfillment.

With continued investment in the advancement of automated, mobile robots and an added emphasis on support for manual workers to ensure that they’re knowledgeable, trained and ready to embrace the solutions poised to improve their lives at work, distribution centers will be that much more capable of solving all of today’s contemporary labor problems. WMHS

Matt Wicks is Vice President of Product Development at Honeywell Intelligrated.

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