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Jobs for Cobots: Automation as Labor Augmentation

By: Kevin Paramore, Contributor

Keeping inventory moving to fuel production lines is an ideal job for mobile robots. Instead of humans retrieving and moving pallet loads or kits, robotic lift trucks can bring them to assembly stations, often interfacing with humans at each end. (photo courtesy Yale Materials Handling Corporation)

The gap between the limits of the labor force and the needs of the supply chain makes robotics not just something nice to have, but something we need to have.

This sets the stage for an approach to automation that breaks sharply from popular paranoia. Robots are not “coming to take away” jobs. They’re valuable tools that
help raise overall productivity by working alongside human co-workers—cobotics as a labor-augmentation solution.

What’s the extent of this positive impact on productivity? According to a September 2018 CBRE report, the productivity gain from robotics in the distribution industry is estimated to be as much as 46%.

Robots in the Real World

Historically, repetitive tasks that do not require the human capacity to think and adapt on-the-fly are prime candidates for automation. With that criteria in mind, managers can evaluate their most costly, yet important, processes and subtasks.

Take order fulfillment, for example. In the average warehouse, order picking accounts for 50-65% of total operating costs. What’s more, a deeper look at this process reveals that employees assigned to pick orders can spend up to half of their time traveling between pick locations—not actually picking. The strengths of human pickers and mobile robots best align with different tasks in the picking process and can work together to boost overall efficiency.

Mobile robots are adept at traveling long distances, continuously moving pallet loads and smaller quantities from point A to point B, without breaks or fatigue. They’re advanced enough to detect obstacles and adjust their paths accordingly, relying on their own “map” of the facility to pursue alternate routes.

Humans, on the other hand, lack the ability to continuously move between pick locations without tiring. However, they do have the most advanced perception, cognition and motion-planning systems in the world. The same capabilities that allow us to set the table and take out the trash are uniquely well suited to find, grasp and move individual items to pick and pack orders.

By dividing tasks according to the strength of each type of worker, both are more productive. Pickers no longer trade picking time for travel time, and storage aisles are in turn relieved from congestion—allowing mobile robots to bring items to pickers as efficiently as possible.

Manufacturing is also home to plenty of cobotics potential. Keeping inventory moving to fuel production lines is an ideal job for mobile robots. Instead of humans retrieving and moving pallet loads or kits, robotic lift trucks can bring them to assembly stations. They often interface with humans at each end, before being sent back the other end of the process.

The common thread in these examples is the type of work reserved for humans and their robotic co-workers. Robots excel at repetitive, low-value tasks—just the sort of jobs that lead to the repetitive stress injuries that accounted for 31% of all workplace illness and injury reports in 2016.

Evolving Jobs

History has taught us that innovation creates new tools, jobs and even industries. Just 15 years ago, who would have dreamed of jobs like “iPhone app developer” or “search engine optimization specialist?” Or even further back, industries like “wireless technology” and “ecommerce?”

Robotics are primed for a similar effect on the economy. A recent report by McKinsey & Company includes a top-end estimate of 800 million jobs displaced due to robotic automation. But, in the same scenario, the company estimates significant job growth that more than offsets job losses—up to 890 million new jobs.

In the warehouse, this shift takes shape as updates to existing jobs, like order picking, and a greater need for skilled technical positions. Think robot maintenance, machine supervision and data specialists, all working together to keep systems running; analyze performance; and optimize them for continued improvement.

Robots Becoming Normal

Introducing robots is a big, yet increasingly common shift in large and even smaller enterprises. Continued pressure from ecommerce means key supply chain operations face growing pains that make robot automation an attractive option. Deploying robots to augment labor can drive the necessary productivity gains to meet ever-growing demand, allowing labor and automation to play to their respective strengths. It’s a collaborative picture of robots and humans, more akin to The Jetsons than the revolutionary, all-consuming machines of the The Matrix or The Terminator films. WMHS

Kevin Paramore is Emerging Technology Commercialization Manager at Yale Materials Handling Corporation (www.yale.com).

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