Automation in the warehouse is advancing rapidly — but not to the point where humans are becoming redundant. Keith Phillips, chief executive officer of Voxware, explains why.
SCB: Given what you're seeing and hearing in the market today, where is automation heading in the world of warehousing?
Phillips: It's heading in a lot of different directions. There's a lot of talk about robotics. But for warehouses and supply-chain operations today, the number-one challenge is finding the resources. There simply are not enough people to fill the jobs. There's increased output required from just about every supply-chain and distribution company on the planet, because the economy is so strong. People are spending, corporations are investing capital dollars, and it's generating a very strong economy, which is increasing the need for throughput in a distribution center. You can no longer put people on it, so it's all about automation.
If you look at the robotics technology that's available today, in almost every case the units are geared toward one specific task. So if you were to outfit an entire distribution center with robotics, you would need multiple different types. And there are some tasks that can't be completed by a robot. So the trick is making your people in the distribution center as efficient as possible. You can't just go out and hire ten additional workers when your business increases.
SCB: Robotics has been around in some form or another for many years. But the robot has always had a given task to perform in a repetitive manner. Do you envision an era when a robot could actually do multiple tasks?
Phillips: That's how we see the world of robotics. The robot needs to be able to perform, essentially, the same task that a human does. Which means many different tasks.
SCB: Voice-driven operations are still very important to the warehouse. How has voice advanced in the age of automation? How does voice work with robots?
Phillips: The way that voice has advanced is that it's been integrated with other technologies. In most warehouses, you can't perform all the tasks with voice. There are areas where scanning is simply more effective — if it's a lengthy barcode or in food service, for example. If you think about where the world is headed with blockchain and the initiative that Walmart and IBM are driving around food sourcing in a blockchain world, that's going to be a scanning environment, not a voice environment. It simply takes too long to voice that many digits, and, also, there's too much room for error. So we look at it from the perspective of determining the most effective technology for a given task, whether that’s voice, scanning or augmented reality.
SCB: What’s the ideal relationship between a robot and a human today? What is each one doing in the warehouse?
Phillips: It's changing rapidly. In today's world, there's very little interaction between humans and a robot. In most cases, the robot is doing what we would refer to as large muscle tasks — moving pallets and cases. You're just starting to see the technology move to where robots are able to pick a single, discrete item — an each pick, if you will. That has to advance, because each picks are the most time-consuming pick in a distribution center, and that's where most humans are deployed today.
SCB: How will the technology move forward?
Phillips: I believe that robotic technology will continue to advance. The next challenge that comes with robotics is how you justify the expense in a distribution center. There are very few dark, “lights-out” distribution centers, because of the investment required.
SCB: Is upper management becoming more impatient about the rate of return on investment in such systems?
Phillips: Yes. I think that if you talked to just about any supply-chain executive or CEOs of a large distribution company, they would express great frustration at the challenges that they have in their distribution center operations today. Believe it or not there are still some executives who haven’t figured out that their supply chain should be a strategic advantage and not an expense center.
SCB: Does the logic of automated putaway systems make it difficult for humans to find product in the warehouse racks, so that a robot needs to direct a person to the pick face?
Phillips: When you send that signal to the human or the robot, they're going to get all of the information necessary to complete that task. The real trick lies in dynamically managing the placement of inventory in the distribution center. That's where having an effective warehouse management system comes into play. And once you have all the stuff in place, having the appropriate analytics to drive the warehouse.
SCB: Are we seeing the use of appropriate analytics, or is that still something in the future?
Phillips: It’s still in the future. A few of our customers are figuring out the benefits and how to leverage them, and when they do, it becomes very impactful to their organization. Most tell us that once they figure out how to manage the distribution center via analytics, they're seeing anywhere from a 10-15-percent increase in productivity. So analytics are going to be key for companies going forward, because once you automate, you're going to reach a certain level of optimization.
SCB: It’s exciting to see some of the technology that’s in the future. But it’s also good that human beings will still be in there somewhere.
Phillips: Yes, I think human beings are going to be in distribution centers for a long time to come.
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