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A Robot Can Be a Warehouse Worker's Best Friend

In the battle of humans versus machine on the warehouse floor, some companies have found common ground.

Instead of developing technology to completely replace manpower, these firms are designing robots meant to work alongside people. These robots, for example, can guide workers to items to be picked or can transport goods across a warehouse to be packed and shipped.

Deutsche Post AG’s DHL is testing “swarming” robots at a facility in Memphis, Tenn. These machines help workers pick out medical devices that need to be shipped quickly. Quiet Logistics Inc., which fulfills online orders for retailers like Bonobos and Inditex SA’s Zara, uses the same type of mobile robots in one of its warehouses.

Known as “collaborative” robots, they are small and relatively cheap — costing tens of thousands of dollars — compared with miles of conveyor belts and automation systems that run into the tens of millions. The new robots are designed with the majority of warehouses world-wide in mind, where orders continue to be fulfilled manually by people pushing carts up and down aisles.

Robotics firms pitch them as a way to help people work faster and boost productivity during busy times, such as the holidays, when extra labor is harder to find. Surging online sales and a tight labor market have made it more difficult and expensive to fill warehouse jobs.

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