Karen Leavitt, chief marketing officer of Locus Robotics, explains why retailers and warehouse logistics providers are having trouble finding and retaining labor — and explores automation as a possible solution to the problem.
Q: Why are retailers and warehouse logistics providers having so much trouble finding and retaining labor today?
Leavitt: It's because of the changing dynamic in retail today, with 10-12 percent of sales taking place online. The ratio of e-commerce to retail has been growing at about 10 percent every year, year over year. In a traditional retail environment, the consumers do a lot of their own work. They drive themselves to the store, they walk among the racks, they select their own merchandise, they carry it over to the checkout, and they transport it home.
Now, a lot of that work has been pushed up into the warehouse. When somebody goes online and clicks to purchase something, it magically arrives at their doorstep 24 hours later. But the magic is human labor. Somebody in a warehouse has to read the order, pick it off of a shelf, box it up and ship it to that consumer. That's very labor-intensive.
Q: And you’re having trouble finding enough people.
Leavitt: We are. We have an aging population, and people who are retiring. Workers are desperately needed in this space.
Q: It’s not the most attractive job in the world.
Leavitt: It's a difficult job to do. People are working in very hot or very cold warehouses, for 10-12-hour days. They're walking 10 to 15 miles a day, pushing large carts around. Yet the need for people is growing a lot faster than the population is growing.
Q: So what are some solutions to retaining and finding the necessary labor?
Leavitt: Warehouse work is ostensibly billed as unskilled labor, but the people are very good at doing the things we need them to do. We just want to make them more productive. It’s not just a matter of increasing the labor pool or operating costs. If the worker's wages go up, it's going to increase the cost of goods to the consumer on the other end. So what we're trying to do is find a cost-efficient way of making these people effectively super-human — like warehouse worker cyborgs. We do that by matching them up with collaborative robots. It's the robots that make the humans more effective.
Q: What does the current landscape look like regarding robotics in the warehouse?
Leavitt: There are a lot of different automation technologies. Walking into a typical warehouse, nobody would be surprised to see fork trucks or conveyor systems; they’ve been there for years. In the past, you saw a lot of steel-structure types of automation, things that were bolted down. When you designed the warehouse, you had to design the automation systems to fit that specific facility. It could take months to lay out the entire design. That’s a lot of capital investment.
One of the trends we're seeing now, which is a critical driver in this space, is toward flexibility. The warehouse operator has to keep his options open as to how his warehouse is going to be automated. We’re providing robots that work collaboratively with workers in almost any environment. They're easy to deploy. If the warehouse needs to expand its capacity in some fashion, the robots are perfectly happy going into these new spaces.
Q: But aren’t robots very task-specific?
Leavitt: I would say they have a specific range of jobs. For example, our robots are designed for piece handling. That could be either picking or putaway. When a worker approaches our robot, the worker doesn't necessarily need to know what the task is going to be. The robot can say, "Please pick something for me so that I can deliver it to consumer," or "Please put this item away."
The key lies in the user experience and user interface. Many people don't realize that robots are 90-percent software. The robot has to navigate to avoid hitting things — it’s like a self-driving car that runs in the warehouse. It has to avoid people, but still be able to approach close enough to make the collaborative interaction meaningful, and allow for the congestion that often arises in warehouses.
Q: One of the biggest challenges of warehouse work these days is staffing up to accommodate peak demand. How good are robots at coming in to fulfill extra demand during peak season needs?
Leavitt: It depends on the type of technology, and type of robot. Robots can easily be ramped up. The warehouse operator doesn't have to worry about storing additional equipment, or purchasing excess capacity for just the short months when it’s needed. And because robots can be trained to train the worker who’s going to be working with them, it also means you don't have to spend too much time on training temporary workers who might not be with you for very long. It also reduces the number of temporary workers you require. You can identify your best workers, retain them for the entire calendar year, and only have to hire temp workers for specific bursts of time.
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