Oliver Hedgepeth, professor of logistics with American Public University System online, offers guidance on what warehouse employers and workers must do to adjust to the new age of automation.
The increasing reliance by warehouse and logistics operations on robot arms is just a continuation of a trend toward automation that had been evident for a century or more. But the pace of automation, driven by advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, has quickened with the COVID-19 pandemic, as workers were forced to go home and refused to return to the workplace. “Where we are now [with automation] is where we would be in five years without the pandemic,” Hedgepeth says.
For the most part, warehouse automation takes over repetitive and even dangerous jobs, even if those jobs paid well when humans were required to do them. “It’s not a bad thing,” says Hedgepeth. “Product is being made better and safer. I don’t see a risk involved in [the coming of] AI and robots.”
As with any advance in technology, however, there’s a price to pay — in this case, fewer jobs for humans in the warehouse. And retraining those individuals to take over more complex tasks isn’t an automatic answer to the problem. There’s a dual responsibility involved: facilities must offer retraining opportunities, and workers must accept them. In addition, most of the workers laid off in a particular facility due to automation likely won’t be rehired by that same company; they’ll have to seek opportunities elsewhere. Yet they have no choice but to adjust to the impacts of automation, as they have for decades.
For the foreseeable future, Hedgepeth, humans will still be needed in many positions relating to supply chain management. It’s just a question of making the necessary adjustments, including a willingness to be retrained.
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