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Labor, Staffing & Issues

Robots in the Warehouse: A Progress Report, By: SupplyChainBrain

July 10, 2013

John Hayes, Vice President of U.S. Sales and Marketing with Seegrid, traces the history of robotics in distribution environments, and tells why robots don’t automatically lead to a loss of jobs.

Hayes challenges the notion that the use of robots always means a significant loss of people within a distribution facility. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) often result in some workforce reductions, he acknowledges, but many applications of robotics end up improving the worker’s experience. They make possible the allocation of humans to more “value-added” positions, with better pay. They can also lead to efficiency increases that drive more volume through a facility.

“At the end of the day,” says Hayes, “statistics have proved out that over the long term, there are actually more people in the warehouse after robotics have been deployed.”

Many associate robotics with the “lights-out” warehouse, where virtually no humans are needed to pick and put away product on the racks. The purchase of new distribution technology is a business decision based on the dynamics of a particular industry and location. Many warehouses choose not to go down the lights-out path.

“There are sections where you need human thinking and interaction with the product,” says Hayes. “You can automate long-distance travel [within the warehouse], but it will be a very long time before we remove humans from manufacturing and distribution.”

The latest iteration of robotics is geared toward an intermediate level of automation, Hayes says. A totally mechanized system can be difficult to justify in terms of return on investment. It’s somewhat more viable in Europe, where labor is more expensive to obtain, he says. In the U.S., warehouse managers are more concerned about going after the “low-hanging fruit” of operations that are ripe for automation. Technology needs human backup when the system breaks down. “You have to have people there to make decisions on the fly,” says Hayes.