Automation in material handling is not a new concept; in fact, automation has supported production since the loom transformed textiles in the early 19th century. More recently, as automation technology has become more capable, some are concerned about how this will influence employment. Although it certainly makes sense to consider the impact of automation on the material handling workforce, the collaboration between automated robotics and humans is not a zero-sum game.
Some low wage, non-value-added jobs can be replaced by automation, and this raises concerns that robots are stealing jobs. But, some jobs should be automated. The highly repetitive, dirty, dangerous tasks we once asked humans to fulfill can now be completed by robots, which are both safer and more efficient. This shift in responsibility frees up human employees to fill new roles more suited to their talents: humans have the capacity for creativity and decision-making to contribute at higher levels, while their robot colleagues bear the heavy loads.
Today, a person is less likely to have the same job for a lifetime. We are in the midst of the most significant technology advances since the industrial revolution, with new innovations being developed at a faster pace. New roles and responsibilities will emerge, requiring new skills and training to ensure the successful evolution of our workforce. Advancement in technology is the fuel that drives our economy forward. Just as the Luddites resisted change with the introduction of the loom, today we are similarly challenged, and must develop a process of adoption. The first step is education.
Adoption and Education
New technology is not magically adopted all at once: implementation lags for any new technology, from color TVs to smartphones. Similarly, mobile automation for material handling is introduced and integrated over time, and the industry must be educated to streamline the process.
Understanding automated operations is key for the industry to adopt new technology. Employees must see mobile robots, like automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous vision guided vehicles (VGVs), in action. They need to learn how safe the technology is, and understand how it benefits their day-to-day jobs. And as soon as a company introduces robots to the facility floor, it's important that their frontline men and women are trained to be the first generation of automated robotics operators. That kind of training will ultimately make companies more productive while making their human employees more valuable.
Instead of cutting labor, companies are finding new roles for employees whose current jobs are better suited for automated machines. Humans do not excel at highly repetitive tasks. Those who were once driving a loop, day-in and day-out, are now operating a fleet of high-tech robots.
Robotics Training Program
The new roles created by automating material handling operations do not require a Ph.D. in computer science or an engineering degree. For instance, my company's robotics training program offers monthly sessions for two days of hands-on training at our headquarters. During the course, trainees from a diverse group of companies learn safety regulations, mechanics and the software platform used to manage their VGV fleets.
These trainees are often former drivers of manual trucks. Since the VGVs are built on manual chassis, it is a natural transition for many of these drivers to learn these new skills. These employees' experiences as truck operators allow for a smooth transition into becoming automated fleet managers.
Trainees are given the hands-on experience to learn how to address technical issues to ensure the VGVs are maintained and operate as intended. To teach the VGVs to maneuver their automated routes, trainees implement automated routes themselves. Trainees are also taught to use the software platform for managing VGV fleets. This platform offers real-time status updates, remote dispatching and intersection management, and provides important data to ensure automated operations are running smoothly and efficiently. After gaining full knowledge of the inner workings of their robot co-workers, from setup to troubleshooting, trainees graduate from the two-day program fully certified.
Our robotics training program also offers education beyond this core curriculum. During the two-day session, trainees can share concerns, exchange ideas and offer perspective to their colleagues from other companies. Understanding the transition of the workforce on a larger scale is important for these employees to see the bigger picture of how automation will impact the industry.
Decades ago, factories were generally dirty and unsafe places to work. Today, the industry has evolved, and manufacturing and distribution facilities are more refined and advanced. The C-suite understands that automation is beneficial for their organization's economic viability, but for the industry to thrive and successfully integrate automated operations, we must gain the confidence of the workforce.
It's important to acknowledge that new technology can cause uncertainty. Change is never simple, especially when it could impact a person's livelihood. However, training manual truck operators to take on new roles empowers them. This will only be achieved with a holistic perspective of how the industry is adopting automation and how human employees will contribute.
Typical industrial vehicle training is straightforward: learn how to operate the machinery. The industry's training efforts should intend not only to provide vocational training but also to allow trainees to utilize the skills their robot colleagues could never possess: creative thinking. By learning the concepts of automated operations, employees are able to contribute at a higher level, understand the evolving workplace, and offer more value-added labor.
The metric for automation's success should not be the number of VGVs alone. Real success comes six to 12 months after implementation, as companies embrace automation and implement it further and in new ways they didn't originally intend.
Our industry is still learning. We are still developing and will continue to evolve. As we make our machines smarter, we have to also help our human workforce learn new skills. For automation, as with any new technology introduced, whether to consumers or businesses, the key to adoption will always be education. For our industry, that means instilling the knowledge our human workers need to understand, embrace, and contribute to the future of material handling.
Jeff Christensen is vice president of products with Seegrid. His career spans technology design, information delivery solutions, business intelligence, and analytic software. His expertise is in growing startups into multinational corporations (Rhiza Labs, MAYA Design, Inmedius).
Are You Ready for the Robot Revolution?
In the coming years, the industry will see "massive adoption" of robots, predicts Jing Bing Zhang, research director, worldwide robotics, with technology analyst firm IDC.
"Technological development in artificial intelligence, computer vision, navigation, MEMS sensors and semiconductor technologies continue to drive innovation in the capability, performance, autonomy, ease of use and cost-effectiveness of industrial and service robots," he says.
In a recent report, IDC states that robots have the potential to disrupt the business ecosystem for all industries and hence will have significant impact on a company's IT functions.
Following are 10 predictions made by IDC analysts regarding the future of industrial robots:
- By 2019, 30% of commercial robotic applications will be in the form of a "robot as a service" business model, reducing costs for robot deployment.
- By 2019, 30% of leading organizations will implement a chief robotics officer (CRO) role and/or define a robotics-specific function within the business.
- By 2020, companies will have a greater choice of vendors as new players enter the $80 billion information communications technology (ICT) market to support robotics deployment.
- By 2020, robotics growth will accelerate the talent race, leaving 35% of robotics-related jobs vacant while the average salary increases by at least 60%.
- By 2019, the government will begin implementing robotics-specific regulations to preserve jobs and to address concerns of security, safety and privacy.
- By 2020, 60% of robots will depend on cloud-based software to define new skills, AI capabilities and application programs, leading to the formation of a robotics cloud marketplace.
- By 2018, 30% of all new robotic deployments will be smart collaborative robots that operate three times faster than today's robots and are safe for work around humans.
- By 2020, 40% of commercial robots will become connected to a mesh of shared intelligence, resulting in 200% improvement in overall robotic operational efficiency.
- By 2018, 35% of leading organizations in logistics, health, utilities and resources will explore the use of robots to automate operations.
- By 2018, 45% of the 200 leading global e-commerce and omni-channel commerce companies will deploy robotics systems in their order fulfillment warehousing and delivery operations.