The huge influx of temporary help that occurs within the supply chain each fall brings problems of higher overhead and the challenge of blending those individuals with the permanent workforce. More automation would appear to be an attractive alternative.
Within D.C.s, there's been a definite movement in that direction. Four years ago, Amazon.com Inc. bought Kiva Systems for $775m. The deal gave it a fleet of robots that were deployed throughout Amazon’s growing network of fulfillment centers. By 2015, the company reportedly had some 30,000 bots in operation – double the number from the year before.
Amazon could afford the investment; others might be less able. Independent logistics service providers (LSPs) would seem the ideal candidates for automation, given their heavy involvement in warehouse operations. But even if they have access to the cash, many are reluctant to spend it. Most client commitments are simply too short to justify taking the plunge. So LSP-run warehouses remain, in large part, manual in nature.
Bruce Welty would like to change that. The chairman of Quiet Logistics, an LSP servicing fashion and apparel brands, envisioned a more flexible and affordable type of robot. His company had been using Kiva technology, but the Amazon acquisition prompted him to seek another solution.
The typical robot isn’t especially well suited for multi-task LSP operations, Welty says. He sought to develop units that could be taught to operate within specific warehouse environments, in collaboration with human workers. Comes time to ramp up activity in response to holiday demand, the D.C. can then decide whether to add people, robots or a combination of both.
Rather than continue to rely on outside technology, Welty started up his own automation provider within Quiet Logistics. He founded Locus Robotics to address the challenge of adjusting fulfillment operations in line with volume growth and seasonal peaks.
The venture wasn’t intended as a means of eliminating humans in the D.C. entirely. Man and machine continue to work side by side. One Locus robot makes a person five times more productive, claims Welty, but no warehouse can afford to have a large fleet of sophisticated robots sit idle during slack periods of the year. Additional hiring to handle seasonal peaks isn’t going away anytime soon.
Robots aren’t new to distribution centers, but older models had to be kept segregated from human workers for reasons of safety. Often they’d be confined to cages or delineated operating zones.
A typical Kiva unit might weigh more than 1,000 pounds, posing a potential hazard to anyone who inadvertently crosses its path. Locus’s robots, by contrast, weigh less than 100 pounds and move at a speed of just under two meters per second. So humans can interact much more closely with the machines.
In the Locus system, a person is needed to complete a pick or putaway. Equipping the robots with picking arms would be impractical, says Welty, given the huge number and variety of items in a Quiet Logistics warehouse. (Quiet makes around 10 million shipments a year, he says.) What robots do well is cut down on travel time between picks, as well as the amount of time spent on a specific task.
It seems obvious that robots would reduce the need for humans in the warehouse, even if Welty is reluctant to put it that way. “It’s hard for me to make a value judgment,” he says. “I can only say that I need more people than I can possibly find to do this work.” As of early November, he had 500 job openings at one of his warehouses. Even in slack periods, there are at least 100 positions going unfilled.
The reason lies in the growth of e-commerce, which involves large numbers of small packages being shipped to individual consumers, often on an expedited basis. That kind of environment doesn’t lend itself to full automation, unless the product is highly standardized.
“In our world,” says Welty, “we might pick a notebook, a ballpoint pen, a pair of shoes. There’s no machine that can do that.” Some day, perhaps, drones, robots and driverless vehicles will conspire to eject humans from the fulfillment process. But for now, don’t expect most e-commerce D.C.s to become “lights-out” operations. The hiring rush in advance of holiday shopping madness will continue.