What are robots really being used for in distribution facilities today? Craig Henry, U.S. industry manager with Siemens Industry, provides a status report — and a look at the future.
Robots have been in use within factories and fulfillment centers for many years, but their value to operations is far greater today. Given the surge in customer demand for products, and the requirements of e-commerce, “I don’t know how you could possibly survive without having the tools of robotics,” Henry says.
Robotics were first introduced in fulfillment operations exclusively as a means of reducing human labor. Now, however, automation is proving to have more far-reaching benefits. One is the ability to respond instantly to changes in inventory levels and location as well as overall fulfillment strategies. A warehouse staffed exclusively by people can’t possibly make the pivot required to keep pace with actual demand patterns, Henry says.
The modern-day robot is more customizable, able to shift tasks at a moment’s notice. It also provides a source of real-time data that isn’t obtainable from a human-staffed operation. That means instant tracking and access to data on system conditions, all of which can be uploaded to the cloud and also used for spotting historical patterns. Robotics “becomes a living thing in the digital world,” says Henry. “An employee-based system is unable to do that.”
The fear that robots are simply taking jobs from humans is “an archaic notion,” he says. On the contrary, the human labor gap is so severe that robots are being brought into warehouses to make up for the shortfall. For that reason, “automation has now become essential to get the task done.”
In the future, Henry believes, warehouse operations will still need to deploy both robots and humans, with a particular emphasis on collaborative robots, or cobots.
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