Automation has come to the warehouse in a big way, especially in the area of artificial intelligence. Mark Messina, chief operating officer with Geek+, assesses the progress of technology, and offers a long-term view of the fate of human workers.
SCB: How is automation changing warehouse operations?
Messina: We're seeing automation improve efficiency. People are really good at certain operations, but automation simplifies the things that they're not good at, and offers a lot of leverage for operators to modify the warehouse in a more flexible way.
SCB: What’s driving it? Why are warehouses adopting automation at such a rapid rate?
Messina: E-commerce is driving the need for automation. Everybody’s reacting to customer demand for two-day, one-day, and same-day delivery. Automation is the only way to predictably do that, to take the human element out of the operation.
SCB: How are operators benefiting today from the application of artificial intelligence?
Messina: A great warehouse operator will optimize a particular process. What AI does is take that same mental logic and do it in milliseconds. And it does it on a massive scale. So we have thousands of robots doing optimized operations every day, every hour, every minute.
SCB: Is it still a technology in development? Or do you feel that AI has really arrived?
Messina: By definition, AI is always developing. As we move further into the cloud, you’ll see a much deeper version, and a broader base where it's applied.
SCB: Give me a specific example of where it's being applied within the four walls of a warehouse. What types of tasks are being enabled and improved by the use of AI?
Messina: Inventory management. If you think about the field of inventory, density really matters to operators. AI can optimize that density based on the demand and the velocity of a particular SKU mix. As the mix changes, we can completely modify the operation using AI. It can tell us, "We want very high density on the slow-moving stuff, and we can go dig it out. And on the fast-moving stuff, we want to have the shortest path to a human." AI is constantly optimizing that operation, right down to questions like "How do you do fleet management?" The benefit of AI is when you can scale it massively.
SCB: To what extent are the information and activities recorded within the four walls of a warehouse integrated with other aspects of the supply chain? Or is it more like an island of technology that needs to be incorporated into a larger system?
Messina: AI has a lot of applications. At the moment you're seeing islands of information for things like battery management, asset management, and inventory distribution. Outside the four walls of the D.C., you're seeing micro D.C.s, which work really well when you're using AI to analyze credit-card spending or order profiles from existing customers. It can direct inventory to the facility that’s closest to them, before they even know they're going to order it. That's where AI really shines in terms of enabling micro D.C.s, because with a micro D.C., you don't have capacity for excess inventory. You have to have the right material in the right neighborhood. And if you don't predict it well, your micro D.C.'s not going to work.
SCB: Interesting that you should bring up the issue of micro D.C.s, because micro fulfillment is a big topic these days. Beyond AI, what other kinds of automation are suitable for a micro-environment, where you have limited space?
Messina: Just like with every other operation, a micro D.C. is very specific to what you're distributing. I think it's the hot new thing. And to address it, industry is responding with very small, lightweight and application-specific automation. At the moment, though, it's an onion that everybody's working to peel. You'll see a variety of hardware solutions and the software that runs them. But the actual hardware implementation is very difficult, because you're facing a very small footprint. How do you take the human out of that footprint, and still make automation work? Right now, you still need the human.
SCB: I would assume that as automation sweeps into the warehouse, it doesn't sweep the people out. So what is the human role in warehouses today, with the advent of all this new technology?
Messina: At the moment, the question is, how do we extract the maximum efficiency out of the human? A great analogy for this is: I go to the supermarket to get a jar of jam. I have a hard time finding it, but I'm great at picking it off the shelf. So how do we make humans do what they're great at, and have automation do what they're not great at? That's automation at its essence. Humans are still very much required in the D.C. and in fulfillment. As we see technology grow with 5G, higher bandwidth communication, powerful cloud computing, and internet of things devices, you'll see much less human presence. But we're still some time away from that.
SCB: What about the distant future? Will we see complete “lights-out” operations, where warehouses are totally automated with no human beings inside at all?
Messina: That's the end game. It is going to happen, but I think the timeline is still indeterminate. We see very strong developments with a few key technologies, but it’s still sort of a nuclear arms race. Take vision systems. Everybody's got one. They can all pick the same things. On the other end, you've got the manipulator, essentially what replaces the human hand. Both of these are very well understood technologies and we see developments, but there's a plateau. Beyond that, there may be a need for reformatting the way we package things. And it’s got to be across industries.
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