The intersection of inventory growth and staff shortages
The combination of continuously growing consumer and business demand, a permanently changed supply chain after adjusting to Covid, and the Great Withdrawal has had a cumulative impact on the country’s warehousing landscape like never before. Statistics from the US Bureau of Labor reported over 500,000 vacancies in warehousing and transportation in August 2022 alone. Labor shortages and high employee turnover are having a critical impact on the efficiency and productivity of the country’s warehouses, especially when you factor in the cost of constantly replacing and training new employees, which can account for nearly 25% of a worker’s average annual salary.
But the impact goes far beyond resignations. Workers are also retiring in record numbers, taking years of braintrust with them – leaving a skills gap for the remaining multigenerational workforce, who must learn their jobs quickly without being able to draw on the combined expertise of their more experienced colleagues. A sobering combination when you consider that the demand for labor in logistics facilities has practically doubled in the last 10 years. This dynamic has a significant impact on the productivity of individual companies and the collective economy.
For many warehouse managers, technologies such as robotics and voice-controlled work (VDW) are an answer to this challenge. Although estimates today suggest less than eight percent of US warehouses are using mobile robotics, many forecasts signal an upward trend for the market going forward.
Help move goods and do good
The introduction of robotics and speech into the warehouse environment can be a win for both the facility manager and the worker as it positively impacts productivity and morale by helping to address labor shortages, improve efficiency and increase productivity Opening the door for employees who would otherwise be unable to work.
For example, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can perform many tasks in warehouses or distribution centers (including pallet handling, product picking and fulfillment) that are typically considered repetitive or non-value-added, freeing workers for other activities and ultimately increasing productivity.
Voice technology can also be used in many warehouse and industrial processes such as order picking and replenishment. By directing workers to the correct location, telling them the quantity of a particular item they need to pick, directing them to the next location, etc., workers can complete tasks quickly and efficiently with minimal training. Using the same processes to replenish inventory means items can be quickly returned to the right place and are immediately available for resale – significantly reducing the monetary loss from misplaced items.
Additionally, robotics and language technology may serve to augment more labor-intensive functions that are physically demanding (and potentially less safe for humans), such as: B. lifting heavy objects or transporting objects across picking points. In such scenarios, AMR and language technologies perform repetitive, time-consuming and dangerous tasks to save manual labor and enable greater efficiencies or, in the case of peak or holiday periods, reduce seasonal training and overtime assignments.
Shining light on the forgotten worker
In talking about the benefits of AMR and voice technology, there is another critical opportunity these technologies are unlocking – opening up the workforce of “forgotten workers” who might otherwise not be able to work. By bridging the gap between an employee’s skills and the task at hand, AMRs and language technologies can empower additional employees to bring their productivity to warehouse and industrial teams.
By applying modern technologies in new and innovative ways, AMR and speech technology can open up a new green field of possibilities. Camps and facilities that employ disabled veterans, for example, can use robots to help them complete tasks that would otherwise be time-consuming and labor-intensive, such as B. pushing carts. Robots equipped with acoustic commands can be combined with Braille barcodes to enable blind workers to perform picking tasks. Goods-to-person robots can allow people with limited mobility to complete picking by moving shelves of products to workers in a 10 by 10 workspace – a solution that also boosts efficiency during peak periods. AMRs were even used to keep workers safe during the Covid peak by helping staff keep a safe distance from one another.
The ability to add additional labor to the warehouse workforce also speaks to a common misconception about AMRs – that they replace human resources. Instead, warehouse managers can plan more work more efficiently and empower their employees to devote themselves to more value-added activities by helping to address work-related challenges more efficiently. Instead, by using technology to perform repetitive or unsafe activities, employees can complete the more valuable tasks that machines can’t perform and even increase their value by learning to manage robotic and voice functions where possible.
As today’s warehousing and facility landscape continues to evolve, forward-thinking companies that consider the possibilities of technology deployment and warehouse automation will continue to expand their capabilities and opportunities for continued growth.
As Vice President of Robotics and Voice, John Santagate leads the strategy for autonomous mobile robotics, warehouse robotics and the robotics partner network for Körber. As a key component of Körber’s end-to-end solutions, John ensures his technologies drive customer success and integrate seamlessly with the broader Körber portfolio. Solving complex challenges and opening new possibilities through technology and innovation, John has spent his career in the supply chain helping his clients become the most efficient and profitable companies in their industries. Prior to Körber, John consulted with industry leaders to transform their supply chains with Tata Consultancy Services at the Supply Chain Center of Excellence. He was also a senior robotics and supply chain industry analyst at IDC for five years, where he focused on market trends, forecasts and thought leadership for supply chain robotics and business process development. In addition to his role as VP, John is an Adjunct Instructor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he teaches a course on supply chain and logistics. John Santagate is an avid American football fan, and each year he and his wife take a trip to a different college football stadium to see a game.