Automation the solution to labour shortage: survey

by Inside Logistics Online Staff

LINCOLNSHIRE, Ill. – More than three quarters of IT and operations mangers want to augment human labour with automation, a recent study has found. However only 35 percent have a clear understanding of where to start automating.

The 2024 Warehousing Vision Study analyzes IT and operations decision makers’ current and planned strategies for modernizing their warehouses, distribution centres and fulfillment centres.

Both automation and worker augmentation solutions will be a key focus for planners in the next five years. Eighty-seven percent of decision makers are currently in the process of or planning to expand the size of their warehouses by 2024, with 82 percent anticipating an increase in the number of warehouses during this timeframe.

“IT and operations decision makers are prepared to meet this heightened demand over the next five years by taking an incremental approach to modernizing their warehouse operations, in which they will first work to improve individual and team productivity, while achieving workflow conformity,” said Mark Wheeler, director of supply chain solutions, Zebra Technologies, which sponsored the survey.

“By 2024, leaders will shift their focus to the integration of more holistic solutions to build data-powered environments that balance labor and automation in the warehouse, ultimately empowering front-line workers with a performance edge to lead the way.”

By 2024, automation will enhance worker performance rather than replace workers. Sixty-one percent of decision makers plan to enable partial automation or labour augmentation with technology in the warehouse.

Three-quarters of respondents believe human interaction is part of their optimal operational balance, with 39 percent citing partial automation (some human involvement) and 34 percent citing augmentation (equipping workers with devices) as their preference.

Decision makers anticipate using robotics for inbound inventory management (24 percent), outbound packing (22 percent) and goods in/receiving (20 percent) by 2024.

Rethinking fulfillment strategies and operations to meet emerging challenges across the warehouse remains a top priority. Fifty-nine percent of respondents cited capacity utilization as a significant expected challenge and plan to address it by expanding the size of their warehouses.

Sixty percent of organizations cited labour recruitment and/or labour efficiency and productivity among their top challenges, with 63 percent of respondents noting an immediate focus on individual or team productivity outcomes.

IT/technology utilization was identified both as the most anticipated operational challenge (61 percent) of the next five years and a desired long-term outcome for increased asset visibility, real-time guidance and data-driven performance.

As warehouses expand, so will the volume of stock keeping units (SKUs) and the speed items need to be shipped. Decision makers will seek increased visibility and productivity by implementing more robust returns management operations (81 percent), task interleaving (80 percent), value-added services (80 percent) and third-party logistics (83 percent).

The investment and implementation of new technologies is critical for remaining competitive in the on-demand economy. Almost half (46 percent) of surveyed respondents cited faster delivery to end-customers as the primary factor driving their warehouse growth plans.

More than three-quarters (77 percent) of decision makers agree that they need to modernize operations across the warehouse to remain competitive in the on-demand economy but are slow to implement new mobile devices and technology.

Seventy-three percent of companies are currently modernizing their warehouses by implementing or refreshing mobile computers, tablets and barcode scanners. By 2024, modernization will be driven by Android-based mobile computing solutions (83 percent), real-time location systems (RTLS) (55 percent) and full-featured warehouse management systems (WMS) (54 percent).

Sixty percent of respondents cited mobile barcode label or thermal printers as a key area of investment as part of their plans to add, expand or upgrade devices in the next three years.

Almost half (49 percent) of North American decision makers identified outbound packing, staging and loading as a challenge. Ninety-four percent of respondents will have implemented or plan to implement trailer load optimization and/or load compliance solutions by 2024.

The 2024 Warehousing Vision Study included 1,403 IT and operational decision makers in the manufacturing, transportation and logistics, retail, post and parcel delivery and wholesale distribution markets in North America, Latin America, Asia-Pacific and Europe who were interviewed by Qualtrics.