June 7, 2022
Your New Warehouse Worker Might Need a Battery
The need to automate to stay competitive in your warehouses is becoming a question of when – not should. Is it time to consider warehouse worker automation? Labor challenges and increasing demands of customers and consumers will only become greater over the next several years. The next question is how to best introduce that technology into your operation? How do you gain benefits, minimize disruption, and justify the expense?
The labor shortage has been discussed often. We have a contracting supply and expanding demand.
- Reports show there are about 500k open warehouse jobs and an expected increased demand of another 500k over the next 3 to 5 years.
- The workforce is aging and is not being replenished due to decades of declining birth rates.
- Some 3 million women have not returned to the workforce from pandemic levels.
- Flexibility is a leading factor in the work people choose, often working two or more part-time jobs as opposed to a more traditional schedule.
- The past and future growth of e-commerce increases the need for more labor than in traditional distribution models.
- The need for next and even same-day delivery is increasing the use of smaller, regional warehouses. That spreads out labor and lowers the efficiency achieved in higher volume operations with labor density.
These factors are a call to action. The human effort needed to service orders in a warehouse needs to be decreased. Systems, automation, and robotics are tools to address that challenge.
Robotics – Your Automated Warehouse Worker
When we look at robotics as a tool to address the challenges, the visual impact of a machine doing the work of people needs to be well managed.
As you plan to leverage robotics, look for:
- Simple, repetitive tasks
- Removing travel time
Removing travel time is the biggest opportunity in removing manhours from your distribution processes. Replenishments, moving material from receiving to put away, moving picks to sortation or another shipping function; these are all opportunities. Of course, the uniqueness of your warehouse will dictate the best use. Robots can be used in loading and unloading trailers, working in very narrow aisle environments, inventory counting, and even maintenance activities like taking out the trash. The bottom line is to reduce the hours in your operation, thereby reducing the demand for labor and improving service.
Another critical point in planning where to employ your robot army is remembering that robots don’t think, they execute. Here are some other considerations as you plan:
- Choose tasks that are highly repetitive.
- Pilot the robot introduction in an area where there is a high likelihood of success.
- Tasks where a queue is sent, and an action is completed based on that queue will work well.
Tasks with variations need to be managed by people. People can think through complexity and decide on an action. Robots cannot do that, not yet, anyway.
The People Factor
The key to making your introduction of robots is to make it positive and fun. There are many stories out there about teams naming their robot co-workers, adding facial features, etc. The opportunity to work with robots might attract workers interested in the technology. Here are some other tips that may help as you transition:
- Make sure you are making it exciting for the team, not a job concern. Stress how their new coworkers can reduce the travel they’re dealing with every day.
- Communicate that the demands for overtime will decline as the new technology is employed. Share that a successful project implementing robots will reduce the cost to serve your customers, improve your competitive advantage, and increase business. That all leads to job security.
- Above all, involve the team in the new tools. Make them part of the new operational design.
The standard expectation of a return-on-investment calculation is generally on labor savings. Many robot providers offer attractive financing options and can support seasonal spikes and ramp-up activities with short-term leases. That may be a savings source.
While this needs to be calculated, be careful not to commit to reducing your staff too much. Include turnover and related costs including overtime worked to cover for labor shortages. If you are not able to grow your business because of staffing challenges, that should be included in your business case. It can be a powerful argument.
The need to automate is clear. No matter whether it is a systems enhancement, a physical layout change, voice picking, conveyance, goods to person systems, or robotics technology, there is a need to evolve operations to meet today’s challenges. Focus attention on material flow improvements and reducing the person-hours needed to process order volume. Finding new technology that works well with your existing toolset and helps you make those improvements and reductions will bring new operating benefits to your organization.
Need help deciding what automation may be right for your operations?