Inside Logistics

Bridging the gap

Automation as labour augmentation


January 3, 2020
by Mick McCormick

It’s hard to have any kind of supply chain conversation these days without covering labour. Unemployment currently stands at 5.5 percent. But despite the economy operating at essentially full employment, the growth – and associated need for more labour – does not stop.

Need to have

According to a September 2018 CBRE report, rapid e-commerce growth will create demand for an additional 452,000 warehouse and distribution workers from 2018 to 2019.

Even for big names like Amazon, labour is difficult to find. During its much-publicized jobs day, the company received 20,000 job applications – not even half the number required to fill their 50,000 open positions. This gap between the limits of the labour force and the needs of the supply chain makes robotics not just something nice to have, but something we need to have.

Think about robots as part of strategic workforce planning. They’re valuable tools that help raise overall productivity by working alongside human co-workers as a labour augmentation solution.

What’s the extent of this positive impact on productivity? The same CBRE report pegs the productivity gain from robotics in the distribution industry to be as much as 46 percent.

Robots in the real world

Historically, repetitive tasks that do not require the human capacity to think and adapt on the fly have been prime candidates for automation. Take order fulfillment, for example. In the average warehouse, order picking accounts for approximately 50 percent of total operating costs.

A deeper look at this process reveals that employees assigned to pick orders can spend up to half of their time traveling between pick locations – not actually picking. The strengths of human pickers and mobile robots best align with different tasks in the picking process and can work together to help boost overall efficiency.

Mobile robots are adept at traveling long distances, continuously moving pallet loads and smaller quantities from point A to point B, without breaks or fatigue. They’re advanced enough to detect obstacles and adjust their paths accordingly, relying on their own ‘map’ of the facility to pursue alternate routes.

Humans, on the other hand, lack the ability to continuously move between pick locations without tiring. However, we do have the most advanced perception, cognition and motion planning systems in the world. The capabilities that allow us to set the table and take out the trash are uniquely suited to find, grasp and move individual items to pick and pack orders.

Division of labour

By dividing tasks according to the strength of each type of worker, both can be more productive. Pickers no longer sacrifice picking time traveling to pick locations, and storage aisles are in turn relieved of congestion, allowing mobile robots to bring items to pickers as efficiently as possible.

These examples are just a few of the ways that materials handling tasks can be accomplished by humans and their robotic co-workers. Robots excel at repetitive, low-value tasks – just the sort of jobs that could lead to repetitive stress injuries. That leaves higher order activities for humans, complete with their potential for greater job satisfaction.

Evolving jobs

History has taught us that innovation creates new tools, jobs and even industries. Just 15 years ago, who would have dreamed of jobs like “iPhone app developer” or “search engine optimization specialist?” Or even further back, industries like “wireless technology” and “e-commerce?”

Robotics is primed for a similar effect on the economy. A recent report by McKinsey & Company includes a top-end estimate of 800 million jobs displaced due to robotic automation. But in the same scenario, the company estimates significant job growth that more than offsets job losses: up to 890 million new jobs.

In the warehouse and manufacturing facility, this effect shifts work to robotic solutions and creates new roles for humans, driving a greater need for skilled technical labour. Think robot maintenance, machine supervision and data specialists, all working together to keep systems running, analyze performance and optimize them for continuous improvement.

Robots becoming normal

Robots are gaining ground in enterprises both large and small. Pressure from e-commerce will continue to mean key supply chain operations face growing pains, which makes robotic automation an attractive option. Deploying robots to augment labour is an increasingly attractive solution to drive the productivity gains needed to meet ever-growing demand and allow labour and automation to play to their respective strengths

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Mick McCormick is robotics business leader at Yale Materials Handling Corporation