A robot is just a collection of metal, plastic and rubber. What matters are the tasks and applications that it's given — and how it works alongside humans, says Guy Courtin, global alliances with 6 River Systems.
SCB: What’s the status of automation in the area of fulfillment right now?
Courtin: We’ve seen it in manufacturing. But when it comes to fulfillment, we’re really on the cusp of a major growth spurt for automation. If you look at everything that’s happening within the four walls of the warehouse, as well as in things like last-mile delivery and driverless trucks, we're only starting to see the beginning of it. I think it's really exciting.
SCB: Why is that the case now?
Courtin: The whole movement toward consumerization has driven everyone to fulfill faster, more efficiently, to different places, and at different times. Also, we have a shortage of drivers and labor. So what's going to help supplement that? Automation.
SCB: Why are some companies still holding back? Are they still trying to balance the ROI in deciding whether now is the time to jump?
Courtin: You have a lot of companies that are still hesitant to embrace automation. There's a lot of fear about what it means for labor. Some have jumped in with both feet and are really embracing it. Others are saying, "We know we need some, but what does it look like? What do we need to take on board in terms of automation?” They’re trying to figure it out, but I think no one is going to avoid having some degree of automation.
SCB: There's always the question of first mover advantage. If you wait a while, is it too late?
Courtin: I don’t think it’s too late. Two years ago, robotics and automation were kind of a neat thing to see, but it was sort of like a circus act. Now, automation is everywhere. Robotics is no longer a “neat” thing; it’s a vital thing. We’re going to see more automation being embraced in logistics, in fulfillment, in the warehouse, and in transportation.
SCB: How should we view the robot today? Is it the end goal or is it the path to something else?
Courtin: It's the path to something else. We need to think about robotics in the same way we used to think about cell phones or tablets — as a piece of hardware. What we put on top of it is where the real benefits come. Where are the workflows we can add to that robot? What are the data points we can take from it? What’s the software that goes around it? It’s a platform. What else can I put on it to do other jobs? When the iPhone came out in 2007, it was sold as a high-speed internet device, a phone, an iPod — all interesting workflows for that device. Look where it's come today. We can put navigation tools on it. We can use it at conferences to scan leads. We’re adding applications and workflows to the platform that we never thought of before.
SCB: Now, of course, we can’t live without this thing in our pocket. Will we get to the point where we can't live without robots, once we’ve figured out how to utilize them in the best way?
Courtin: The other day I heard someone say that a couple decades ago we had a computer industry. Now computers are in everything we touch — our phones, our cars, our houses. With robotics, it could be the same thing. Right now we have a robotics industry, but eventually it will just become part of our daily lives and work. We won't even think about separating automation from everything else. We’ll see it as one and the same.
SCB: How do you see the relationship of the human to the robot changing?
Courtin: That's an interesting question, philosophically. Jobs might shift, but employment overall will not go away. So we need to look at automation as a complement to the human. Will some jobs go away? In the near term, will robots take on the dirty and repetitive jobs we don't want to do? Absolutely.
SCB: Going forward, though, won’t robots also start doing some of the more sophisticated jobs?
Courtin: I see it as an opportunity for humans to go further. I'm trying to be an optimist about this, and I think that automation will complement us as humans, not overwhelm us.
SCB: Take the case of a collaborative robot that today directs a human to the pick face in the warehouse. Tomorrow, maybe the robot is doing the picking. Doesn’t this increasingly encroach upon the human role for such tasks?
Courtin: I think it does at some level. The question is, will savvy companies have the vision to ask what we as humans can do better still? Or will they just throw their hands up and say, "Let the robot do everything, and we won't worry about the human"? We’ll be thinking about how we can collaborate with robots so that they’re a continuous aid to us.
SCB: So what are robots in the warehouse all about, ultimately?
Courtin: At the end of the day, I think robots are about creating dynamic and flexible workflows. Just like with an iPhone, they’ll be flexible to take on other workflows, and do it on the fly.
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