Warehouse automation has come a long way since the late 1970s when the first automated guided vehicles (AGVs) appeared but on the path to the holistic approach that we have today, where man, machine and software work in harmony, is there still room for improvement? It seems so but let it be clear that in this new age of online shopping that has so profoundly changed the face of logistics, without warehouse automation it would be impossible to meet consumer demands promptly and accurately and stay adequately profitable. So where should we look for improving warehouse robotics?

It seems a fresh look may be needed not at robots per se but cobots (collaborative robots). Most robots and other automation are cocooned from human workers, performing tasks like pallet layering, order picking and automated storage and retrieval, with some exceptions like AGVs whose defined paths would interact with people. Cobots, however, work closely with people and there are growing concerns about the impacts of robotics and AI on labour, health, safety and morale.

One Amazon worker whose role was to interact with ‘drivers’ (AGVs) weighing 0.5 tonnes remarked: “When you are out there and hear them moving around you can’t see them. It’s like where are they coming from.” These machines are more likely to be autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) which move materials around the warehouse while working alongside humans and forklifts using a pre-programmed warehouse map. As such, they are likely to take over from AGVs owing to their higher levels of flexibility.

Amazon, which now uses over 200,000 robots at its fulfilment centres, is increasingly requiring warehouse employees to get used to working with cobots. Warehouses powered by robotics and AI software, it is claimed, are leading to human burnout and rising pressure on workers to speed up performance. A recent American report also found that new technology could contribute to wage stagnation, higher staff turnover and poorer quality work experiences because of the way AI software can monitor and micromanage workers’ behaviour. To counter this, however, it could be argued that robots could make jobs less monotonous and physical, which labour organisations should welcome.

More concerning, perhaps, a recent journalistic investigation of injury rates at certain warehouses found that robotic warehouses reported more injuries than those without. The report found a correlation between robots and safety problems such as in Tracy, California, where the serious injury rate nearly quadrupled in four years after robots were introduced.

Such perceived hiccups on the labour front, however, will not diminish the appetite for more automation in distribution set-ups, in particular, and the perceived labour problems are resolvable. Not only are robots and other automated devices falling in prices, the two biggest challenges facing distribution, namely the growth in e-commerce orders and labour force shortages, will ensure a robust future for warehouse automation in all its forms. The main task is to find an end-to-end supplier partner of sufficient experience with holistic intralogistics solutions to prevent disappointing investments.

Bill Redmond

Features Editor