In any warehouse, there are many processes, including sorting, packing, picking, storage and retrieval, but to name a few. In the majority of warehouses, all of these processes are completed by people, employed to do so.
However, with IoT (The Internet of Things) and ever increasing advances in technology every day, it seems that more and more warehouses are introducing, or already have introduced, robots and AI (Artificial Intelligence) to automate repetitive tasks.
The terminology AI and automation, make this technology sound much more futuristic than is actually realistic. Automation exists in many warehouses around the world, and is a comprehensive term, used to describe the use of RPA (Robotic Process Automation) to complete certain warehouse process.
Whilst people and robots work in harmony in warehouses around the world, it is now being questioned, whether in the not so distant future, robots and AI will replace not just repetitive jobs in the warehouse, but also those whose repetitive jobs they are being tasked with?
There are of course, still many sceptical of the idea of robots automating the array of warehouse processes. The idea that technology can be used to assist human workers with many simple manual tasks, is certainly not a new concept; it is however the question of how comprehensive the assistance is, and furthermore, endeavours to become, that is yet unanswered.
Automation is great for establishing the systematisation of processes, however, the term ‘automation’ is easily overshadowed by the misconception that automated processes automatically improve operations.
For example, a warehouse may choose to automate their packaging process, however, even though the original process, undertaken by human employees took longer, it was more flexible, and minor errors could be easily detected and remedied sooner.
New robotic process automation may prove to be faster, and more efficient the majority of the time, however, breakdowns, power outages, and down time to change the set up for different product profiles all impact on the efficiency. If these events recur, then the automation is seen as a hindrance, as opposed to an improvement of warehouse processes.
Warehouse automation however, has been applauded, for halving the work of human workers with repetitive tasks. Whilst people remain employed by warehouses, and repetitive tasks still remain; robots can be programmed with the ability to handle a specific assortment of products and repetitive tasks also; meaning robot and human share the workload.
However, many may argue that this simply creates an environment where robots and humans are working synchronously, and thus maintain that automation really does not impact on the warehouse, the desired efficiency it proclaims to provide.
In addition to this, current-technology robots are only expected to be able to handle about 50% of the variety of products. With human employees still expected to complete half of the warehouse processes, some may argue, that if robots, with a higher level of accuracy and efficiency are still only able to complete certain tasks, and pick only specific products, is warehouse automation really as conducive to efficiency as we perceive it to be?
However, there are also many arguments which favour warehouse automation, maintaining that robotics and automation, do improve warehouse processes.
Some argue that overtime, and with continued research, new and innovative design approaches and consideration of comprehensive sets of requirements could lead to better overall completion of processes.
In today’s modern warehouses, robots are doing a lot of work, that would otherwise have required additional human employees; saving time and money over the ROI period.
Automated warehouses can often require less building space for operators and pedestrians, providing dense pallet storage, meaning goods are stored more efficiently and less lighting and heating are required. In addition to this, automating manual tasks also is proven to lead to reduced paper usage.
Companies which have already made the technological advancement of entering the digital realm of warehousing, include Ocado, Amazon and Walmart.
Ocado is a brilliant example of warehouse automation done well. Their densely packed mobile network, named the ‘Ocado Smart Platform’ prides itself on being a highly cost effective, efficient, and modular ecommerce fulfilment solution. Their facility is specifically designed to utilise automation to help them power through their next phase of growth.
With more and more companies now investing in automating their warehouse processes, and with the continuous development of technology, a common, cautious consideration, is how automation of processes, will affect the labour market.
What happens when robots are identifying objects and pattern-matching their shapes and attributes with the appropriate picking and packing strategies, with a higher level of accuracy and efficiency and a lower possibility of reluctance than a human warehouse employee?
For some, robot labour holds the stigma of uncertainty, and fears of an impending unbalanced workplace dichotomy which favours the robots. However, with digitisation now viewed as the anchor for productivity and growth, we must begin to reconsider the moral, cultural and economic implications of warehouse automation.
In the not so distant future, one thing that is for certain, is when executed correctly, the combination of automated processes and human labour, can and will increase productivity, now, and in the years to come.