If any technology is making up for the labor shortage and boosting productivity in the warehouse, it's robotics, says Jake Heldenberg, head of solution design, warehousing, North America, for Vanderlande.
As e-commerce continues to grow, even if the pace has slacked somewhat since the pandemic, the labor shortage remains a key constraint. “So, how do I supplement my warehouse with labor that doesn't exist to get these orders to consumers who are trying to buy these products?” Throwing money at the labor gap is not the solution, Heldenberg says. “The only thing left is automation.”
And automation, in any form, is preventing the labor force from leaving the warehouse. Bringing in shuttles, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and other technology enables employees to focus on things they do really well, or that might be fun or challenging. Workers can be placed in more value-added positions, he says. Moreover, having automation, such as AMRs or shuttles, allows warehouse operators to flex when volatility hits.
Item-picking robots are the greatest advancement now, Heldenberg says. They’ve been on the market for years, and many innovations continue in the field, much of it driven by e-commerce orders. He cites different types and sizes of grippers and suction cups to handle varying SKU sizes.
Vision technology that takes the pain out of manually training robots to perform some tasks is an exciting area in robotics at the moment, he says. Some e-commerce customers have a million-plus SKUs. “I don't want to ‘teach in’ all million SKUs because they're always evolving, always rotating, always changing,” he says. “So you'll see on the item-picking side a lot of investment, and a lot of advancement on the teach-in side, as well as the potential of AI or vision systems to teach in on the fly.”
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