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Robotics and the Future of Warehouse Operations Management

In “The Future of Warehouse Logistics” an article by Tom Ryden, a writer for manufacturing.net, he discusses the shift from manual labor to the utilization of robots in business, specifically in warehouses. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit many shoppers made the switch from in-person to online shopping and the article notes that online grocery shopping increased from 3.4% to 10.2% of the $1.04 trillion grocery market. It is likely that the switch from in-person to online shopping will remain long after the direct impact of the pandemic. As demand for fast service and “push-of-a-button” order fulfillment increases companies will need to find creative ways to speed up bottlenecks and improve overall process capacity. One way of doing this, as mentioned in the article, is through the use of “cobots”, or collaborative robots that work alongside human workers.

One intriguing implementation of robots in the warehouse setting is Amazon’s use of “Handle” a robot built by Boston Dynamics, designed for logistics applications. The robot is able to autonomously stack boxes onto pallets and remove boxes from pallets, placing them in their desired location. Robots like this bring into fruition the idea of robots being able to automate manual-labor-intensive tasks and potentially provide significant improvements in efficiency. These robots would also reduce the risk of injury when dealing with extremely heavy packages and also increase the potential storage locations of packages (i.e. humans may not be able to lift 50 lb packages to the top shelf in a warehouse, but robots can!).

Collaborative robots have proven to be extremely useful in improving productivity in warehouses, but they provide new challenges in implementation. Safety standards are a big concern with the increasing adoption of robots, so many companies who build robots limit their strength and speed. These limitations have slowed the adoption of such robots because companies want to see immediate process improvement and quick return on their investments that simply is not possible when robots are limited for safety. Another challenge in the implementation of collaborative robots is the fear of automation stealing jobs from real people in the industry. The article notes that 57% of employees surveyed stated that they are anxious about “their ability to succeed in their jobs due to automation”. As automation increases, workers will need to move into more skilled positions and that requires training / upskilling, meaning companies need to start training employees now so they can succeed when robots eventually take over repetitive / labor-intensive tasks.

With the increase in demand for online shopping and rapid delivery, comes a need for an increased supply of logistical processes capable of keeping up with the demand. A feasible solution is to implement robots that are able to work faster and more efficiently than human workers, but this does not come without its own challenges. Companies will need to find ways to train employees to work alongside robots and move away from repetitive / labor-intensive tasks that robots can simply perform better.

Authored by: Thomas Padova

References
“The Future of Warehouse Logistics” Article: https://www.manufacturing.net/home/blog/21307556/the-future-of-warehouse-logistics.

Walmart Shelf-Scanning Robots Article: https://www.theverge.com/2020/11/3/21547306/walmart-shelf-scanning-robots-automation-boss a-nova-robotics-contract-ended.

Amazon Warehouse Robots Youtube Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5iV_hB08Uns.

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