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The Warehouse Worker’s New Best Friend

Sept. 7, 2022
Robot/people collaborations are fast becoming a focus and could be a competitive advantage in the coming year.

Work life as a warehouse associate can be much easier if a robot tags along. To understand how autonomous robots can transform what is a physically and mentally demanding job today, it helps to first understand the day in the life of warehouse work.

A warehouse picker (we’ll call him John) grabs boxes out of various storage locations, places them onto pallets and then moves those pallets from one location to the next. On a shipping dock, he’ll label and wrap his items, write up some paperwork, and start the process again for the next customer order. John starts his shift at 5 pm and ends it eight hours later after having walked 5 miles or more inside a 250,000-square foot warehouse. In that time, he might take just two 15-minute breaks and a dinner break. He will often be expected to work overtime.

John’s day is physically demanding and can also involve repetitive tasks. So, any relief John gets to make his experience more enjoyable will make him a more productive and happier worker.

Introducing an Important Role for Robots

In the days before Amazon acquired Kiva in 2012, if I’d mention robots in a warehouse, I’d be talking about autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs). These are roving robots that follow wire or tape on the ground or other visual markers to help guide their set path. AGVs were popular because they were the first foray into eliminating the need for humans to operate pallet jacks and the like to move pallets from one location to another. It eliminated the need for a human driver altogether.

These days, a new generation of warehouse automation tools, like the Amazon/Kiva robots, bring goods to pickers and a whole lot more. These are called autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).

AMRs are different from AGVs in infrastructure and intelligence. AMRs use vision systems like LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) or cameras that operate by learning the environment dynamically and navigating freely and safely from point A to point B without human intervention. This technology is similar to self-driving cars.

Without the need to change the warehouse floor, AMRs can map the territory, travel around freely (as compared to older technology), and take over a chunk of work that used to be performed by people (such as driving a pallet or box from the racks to the dock door). Highly regarded for their safety, ease of use and flexibility, AMRs are not only contributing to profitability inside the warehouse but also providing a meaningful solution to the people working alongside of them.

Easy to implement and program, AMRs are best used as collaborative ‘workers’ next to people. In these ways, warehouse pickers like John would benefit by:

• Changing the division of labor. A majority of warehouse work is picking the product and specifically, spending the time handling boxes. AMRs can make picking more efficient, enabling John to stay within the same aisle or set of locations in the warehouse, so he can focus on handling product. AMRs will approach John when there are picks in John’s zone, and when John’s picks are completed, the AMR will travel to the next zone with that product to see one of John’s co-workers. In this case, the robot is doing what it does best. It is traveling around the warehouse handling repetitive tasks with accuracy and without fatigue. John is doing what he does best. He is solving problems on how product should be handled and placed onto pallets or outbound containers.

• Reducing worker travel. Depending on the type of orders and size of the warehouse, travel can occupy anywhere from 30% to 70% of a person’s day. AMRs can take over much of this in-warehouse travel and automate product movement. This reduces the burden on warehouse workers having to drive from one side of the warehouse (where product is located) to the other (where orders are packed and shipped), and also reduces the physical strain of walking.

• Taking control. Without the need to understand programming language, John can task his AMR to help him with his picking tasks, through various means. One way is through John’s interaction on a screen attached to the robot, tapping to begin next action, which prompts the AMR to act. In more sophisticated operations, John follows instructions on his handheld device or uses voice interaction to capture what work he completed and, through warehouse optimization software, the AMRs move alongside him automatically without John’s direction. John has the peace of mind knowing his companion won’t tire or call off work.

Companies Are Spotting and Adopting this Smart Strategy

Companies, worldwide, are identifying the value of this collaboration and investing in it. For instance, fleet management company Ryder System Inc. recently announced that it implemented multiple types of AMRs in three different DCs to provide its workers assistance in reducing the burden of labor-intensive tasks and travel.

Two workers—one human and one robot—sharing tasks effortlessly and in harmony throughout the warehouse floor is not a sci-fi scenario. It’s happening today. The key to making this elegant collaboration work well resides in the systems and software integrating the human/robot experience.

Integration means understanding how humans and robots should interact to accomplish the work normally done 100% by humans and how to make that experience as seamless as possible. How does the robot know where to go next to connect up with a person? How is the person communicating with a robot so that tasks aren’t duplicative or—even worse—missed?

A New Breed of Software

A set of software solutions, referred to as a warehouse optimization suite, are applied to bridge the gap and orchestrate warehouse work seamlessly. These software solutions understand all the work in the warehouse and manage completion of those tasks, electronically capturing results in real-time as tasks are completed on the floor. The process is more sophisticated than traditional warehouse control systems as it provides the intelligence in how these tasks are scheduled dynamically as opposed to a static work plan which is setup in advance and executed in a simple order. This ensures the right sequence of work is completed at the right time to ensure all customer demands are met, especially as warehouse conditions change such as trucks being rescheduled, which may require reprioritizing work.

These systems include both AMRs and people in understanding the real-time location of the work. As an emergency order comes into the warehouse, it is immediately assigned to the next AMR. Given the system’s knowledge of all product needed for that order, the warehouse optimization software directs the AMR to the first area to be picked and also notifies John to go to this same location to meet up with it automatically. As John completes the pick and captures the result electronically, the AMR goes to the next warehouse location where John is also directed to go by this software. This continues until John completes the last pick in his area and the AMR goes to packing to be completed and shipped out ASAP. This is all directed through the sophisticated orchestration software.

In scenarios like this, the day in the life of a warehouse worker is greatly improved. You might wonder when this dynamic duo make sense?

1. An abundance of product (SKUs). To achieve the best ROI, organizations should be already managing a large number of SKUs or associated volume of product which, in turn, requires a large warehouse for storage. Large SKU volume would most likely require a sizable amount of in-warehouse travel which could then be reduced with AMRs.

2. Workers must support the model. The workforce should welcome this AMR+people scenario. I’ve heard management wonder if the use of robots will shift skills away from warehouse workers, minimizing their future employment. I believe just the opposite. Assigning robots the repetitive tasks will free up people to take on higher-level problem-solving tasks, sharpening their skills and improving their own personal productivity. This can provide them more economic opportunities in the future. According to a recent Harvard Business Review study focused on warehouse worker perceptions, respondents were enthusiastic about the use of technology if it helped them be faster, safer and more efficient.

3. It’s not displacement. Some in the industry express fear that robots will completely take over the role of the associate. I believe this displacement theory is a myth. There’s plenty of work to go around. Consider that the U.S. is experiencing a nationwide labor shortage—and this is especially prominent among delivery drivers and warehouse workers. In the last six years, the number of job openings in the warehouse and transportation industry has doubled—shifting from 200,000 openings in 2015 to a record 490,000 in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The actual number of open jobs is even higher than that when you add in seasonal workers and consider that retailers, manufacturers and distributors all have warehouses and may not have been included in those original figures. The industry is growing at a rate that minimizes the validity of the displacement theory.

Making Life Better for the Warehouse Associate

People will always be needed for warehouse work that requires specificity and judgment. For example, people (not robots) are best suited to handle products which have variations in sizes, packaging and texture. Even the rigidity of packaging may require a customized approach. A pallet may be sitting off-center a bit or boxes are not stacked in the right order, or some boxes are dented. These fixes require people to reason through and address.

Additionally, as consumers turn to ordering more online, e-commerce has created complexities in picking for which people are ideal. For example, workers might not pick boxes but rather individual items of unique geometry such as cylinders for two-liter soft drinks or long thin bars. This is much easier done today by people rather than robots.

The New Workforce = Workers + Robots

AMRs and people effortlessly working side-by-side on the warehouse floor is a scenario of the future of warehouse work. Investing in this modern collaboration will not only help you obtain better productivity, accuracy, safety and efficiency, but will also provide more meaningful work to people like John.

Re-distribute tasks so that people and robots each do what they do best. This will contribute to more job satisfaction of warehouse workers. During this time of labor shortages, worker satisfaction is key to retention—and recruitment.

Adding AMRs to your worker mix may help you address the overall labor shortfall, and aid in business continuity at a time when millions of U.S. workers have left their jobs.

Robotics are just a natural extension of all the automation transforming warehouses and DCs over the last two decades as a way to improve overall cycle times and throughput as all companies strive to compete with Amazon’s same-day shipping and next day delivery promises. It should be welcomed for the smart efficiency it brings to everyone involved.

The technology to support robots/people is ready and it works. In the case of Ryder Systems, they produced a 25% increase in productivity simply by reducing travel time in the warehouse.

Robot/people collaborations are fast becoming a focus and could be your competitive advantage in the coming year. Consider it to fine-tune your operations and provide meaningful work to your employees.

Ron May is founding member and senior solution consultant at Lucas Systems, a provider of smart software for warehouse managers and on-floor workers.

About the Author

Ron May

Ron May is founding member and senior solution consultant at Lucas Systemsa provider of smart software for warehouse managers and on-floor workers. A global expert on warehouse process optimization, voice-directed mobile applications, and user experience, he has nearly four decades of system design, development, and implementation experience. As its chief architect and software engineer, he developed Lucas software solutions, including its voice-directed mobile applications. He has collaborated on hundreds of distribution center projects, including the earliest implementations of speech recognition systems for non-picking processes, and multimodal systems combining voice, scanning and other data entry techniques. Prior to Lucas Systems, he helped commercialize industrial speech recognition technology at Westinghouse Electric. He has a B.S. from Case Western Reserve University in Electrical Engineering & Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics.

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