Visit Our Sponsors
Humans have large, agile brains, but are subject to the limits of the human body, including fatigue. Robots are tireless, but have limited decision-making abilities. Combining the best of their respective skills in intelligent ways creates opportunities for efficiency in warehouse and distribution center operations, and improves working conditions across the board.
“Robots are the answer to the questions: How do we handle the explosive growth in e-commerce we’re having? How do we navigate the complicated waters of supply chain challenges everyone is having globally?” says Peter Ashe, vice president of operations at Locus Robotics. With a growing labor shortage, a boom in e-commerce and a looming peak season, the commingling of humans and robots represents not only relief, but the future of warehouse labor.
An Unceasing Labor Shortage
At the center of these questions is labor. News platforms across the board have been speculating why people in low- or unskilled jobs such as warehouse work are failing to rejoin the workforce after COVID-19-related lockdowns. Is it overly generous unemployment benefits? Is it tighter immigration enforcement? Are people still worried about getting sick? Whatever the reason, the primary issue remains: Not enough people are available to work in warehouses and DCs, and we’re anticipating one of the biggest peak seasons ever as shoppers get back to shopping post-lockdown.
Even if there were enough workers to meet the growing need for warehouse labor, there’s still the challenge of training them after a long absence from the workforce. Deploying robots drastically simplifies this process; it only takes a couple of hours to train a human to work with a robot, as compared to the days it could take on a manual system. The robot already knows the warehouse picking, packing and putaway systems; the human just has to follow directions to aid the machines. “We’ve found robots to be a very user-friendly solution for our associates,” says Andrew Bagwell, vice president of engineering at third-party logistics provider Whiplash. “The onboarding and training process is very simple and intuitive, because it doesn’t involve learning to use RF guns and navigating manuals. It’s all visual and picture-based. We’re particularly pleased that it’s multi-lingual, too, and we can code the robots’ messages to any associate’s language of choice.”
Then there’s the challenge of avoiding costly and time-consuming staff turnover. Staff retention often depends on the quality of the work employees are asked to do. Fortunately, the most physically demanding tasks in the warehouse, such as quickly picking orders from far-flung stacks, can now be taken over by robots, leaving humans with less physically demanding work.
“Essentially the robots are traversing the entire pick path, while the workers stay in zones,” explains Bagwell. “That reduces the amount of travel time. The human workers just have to pick, put it on the robot and then continue.”
Sophie Pagalday, director of product marketing at Locus, says this means a warehouse operator can make employment opportunities more attractive by other means than just offering higher compensation. “One of the great benefits is that bots take a lot of physical load away from the worker,” she says. Employees who work in tandem with bots are less likely to find themselves carrying unwieldy boxes around or pushing heavy carts long distances, making the job itself more desirable.
“We see an improvement in morale when we deploy these solutions,” Pagalday says. “We can even gamify operations, so they can see how they’re doing, how they’re ranking against other associates, improving productivity through competition.” Not only does worker turnover go down; safety metrics also improve, reducing injuries and the costs of worker compensation.
Surgebots Provide Key to Scalability
Scalability has never been more important in warehouse operations. With the increase of e-commerce and non-traditional peak periods, companies need ways to accommodate changing demand quickly and cost-effectively. Using a robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) model, warehouses can deploy robots on a flexible basis, allowing for rapid scalability. The use of extra robots — or surgebots — during peak periods is key to the process.
This is particularly important now, as the term “peak” has come to mean different things to different companies.
“Companies are [tasked] with solving the challenges of peak, especially in terms of labor,” says Steve Branch, senior director of sales engineering at Locus. “We still have companies that experience 10 times their off-peak volumes during that period of six to eight weeks toward the end of the year.” But, he points out, warehouse operators are also looking at what might be called non-conventional peaks in demand, such as those caused by increases in e-commerce orders, as opposed to conventional fulfillment-to-retail outlets. E-commerce orders tend to be both smaller (since they’re going to individual consumers) and more complex than putting together a pallet of the same SKU item.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how volatile supply and demand levels can be. “Many 3PLs and retailers tend to understand peaks, and know how to respond,” says Pagalday. “But, in the last 15 months, industries that had not previously seen peaks — for example, producers of healthcare equipment and B2B providers — have experienced surges in demand. As a result, many industries are learning for the first time about peak, and that they have to flex.”
Ashe agrees. “Peak was traditionally this magical time between October and December, but now there’s Mother’s Day, Back-to-School, Fourth of July… These form micro-peaks that start to blend more into the norm.”
Whiplash has found robots to be particularly useful in helping to fulfill e-commerce orders, and chose to deploy them in the three of their 18 warehouses that are seeing the highest e-commerce volume. “This solution fits particularly well with high-touch, multiple-SKU types of orders,” Bagwell says. He notes this allows Whiplash to seamlessly scale up for digitally native, growing brands that are particularly prone to sudden surges in demand. “We can scale the solution for them without major changes in infrastructure,” he says.
Robotics solutions are more easily and quickly scalable than more conventional forms of warehouse automation — you simply order more robots, and they’re there within a week. “With more traditional automation, you’re typically designing for volume expectation three years out. But we can quickly increase the robot footprint and numbers without going into complex projects, in order to facilitate that growth and serve the market.”
Whatever the market forces are, and however long these micro-peaks last, Locus is experiencing a dramatic uptick in warehouse operators ordering surgebots and then keeping more of them than anticipated. Until recently, a typical retention rate for surgebots was about 10%; now it’s upwards of 30%.
“Maybe that’s indicative of the general growth of e-commerce,” Ashe speculates. “There was this idea we were going to have a surge, but then they realized it’s not going back to the way it was.”
Implementing the Solution
3PLs and retail leaders who are planning their peak season strategies, facing labor shortages and looking to support record-setting demand rates should consider either adopting a solution with autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), or bringing in additional mobile robot units. The good news is that, for those looking to implement robotics, it's not too late. Automation providers with minimal infrastructure requirements and a robotics-as-a-service model can get companies up and running within six to eight weeks. The benefits in efficiency are matched by the improved working conditions for hard-to-find workers — a perfect example of human and machine working in tandem.
“Scalability and the speed of doing that is paramount for us,” says Bagwell. “When one of our customers is growing, we don’t want to be in a constant state where we’re always building one year out. We want to be able to grow with them, continuously. The RaaS model allows us to do that.”
For Whiplash, an improved working environment is also critical. “We found our employees really embraced the robots right from day one, because they’re part of the process rather than eliminating labor,” says Bagwell. “Altogether, it makes for a much more user-friendly environment than other warehouse management technology tools.”
As with most things, the changes caused by lockdowns and a growing reliance on e-commerce are here to stay. Adapting to those changes, especially with the use of robotics, is not only profitable but necessary for a predictably unpredictable future.
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.