Jonathan Bellwood, Founder & CEO, Peoplevox, considers why the arrival of robots and AI is far from being the beginning of the end for warehouse personnel.
The past 35 years or so have witnessed some remarkable and life-changing technological advancements, none more so than the PC, Internet, email, mobile devices, social media, e-commerce.
And as we speak we are experiencing the initial impact of the Internet of Things, where everything and quite possibly everyone is becoming increasingly interconnected, while at the same time contemplating the impending reality of driverless cars, delivery vehicles and drones, flying fulfilment warehouses, not to mention robots empowered by Artificial Intelligence!
It is AI and robotics which is proving particularly mind blowing and the cause of many, often polarising, debates. At one end of scale there are those, of any age and walk of life, who feel totally threatened by robots while others just can't wait to get acquainted.
On the one hand any reticence to embrace this latest chapter of game-changing innovations appears at odds with Generations X, Y and Z who so far have cheerfully accepted and subsequently benefited from all or most of the aforementioned game-changing developments of the past 35 years.
At the same time, it is easy to understand how the concept of such humanoid and cyborg-like creatures could be perceived as a step too far. The very thought of their steadily taking over jobs and eventually the human race is understandably a daunting prospect. After all, the other techno stuff just helped us mere mortals improve and enhance our daily and working lives, not take us over!
However, like it or not, the march of the robots is upon us in the warehouse. Perhaps not quite as depicted in popular sci-fi novels and films and thus far used more for loading and unloading pallets, but nevertheless hardware and software 'robots' are increasingly seen as a great opportunity for achieving increased efficiencies in many other areas of the retail warehouse. No holidays, sick days, even sleep! And they don't need supervision or further 'training' once programmed to do a specific task.
Robotics has the potential to enhance e-commerce warehouse management by complementing WMS software. For example, an intelligent WMS can decide when to do a re-plan and then instruct the robot to do certain of the tasks involved.
But it doesn't necessarily follow robots replace humans as they can co-exist side by side and be complementary, especially so in the fast moving e-commerce warehouse environment. For example, the human touch is still irreplaceable when it comes to picking less common or smaller items which come in multiple sizes and colours and may be stored in an illogical way. For example 'pink knickers go with blue hats' is something a human can perhaps recall far better as an aide de memoir than a robot.
Clearly robots have the potential to remove human error from the warehouse workplace as well as do certain tasks more efficiently. Packing is a good example where they are already at work on conveyors deciding which carrier receives which package: "Push parcel Left for Royal Mail, Right for DPD". They can also decide and deliver to the pack bench which size/type packaging is correct for a particular item or items, and seal the parcel.
A form of AI is also emerging using on-premise Cloud, pushing real-time data and information to operatives' mobile devices right at the point of activity. So, for example, real-time information being continuously pushed in the background to packers' devices can help them be more efficient by predicting and prioritising the volume and types of product items requiring packing – and offering them input on how to pack them.
Furthermore, small robotic devices such as Amazon's KIVA can boost picker productivity and accuracy by getting it right first time, every time, when it comes to retrieval of certain common items across the warehouse. That's good rather than bad news for pickers who often walk as many as 20 miles per day, and for business owners bearing in mind pickers typically account for 60 – 80 % of warehouse overhead. But rather than replacing pickers the robot is helping them do their job faster and more effectively.
Of course robots don't have to fit the typical sci-fi cartoonist vision of a robot. It can be just software and there are areas in Fulfilment where these could and are put to work - in customer services for example to handle the all too common "where's my order?" query. Rather than the customer having to call and wait for a human being to pick up and answer, or run the gauntlet of online form filling, why not have a software robot with a virtual human voice do the talking? This makes for swift cost reductions in the supply chain.
Another stereotyped image of robots to dispel is where they are always seen to be taking over all the more menial tasks, replacing the lower cost workers. But why not look at the higher end of the scale where there is greater potential to save costs, for example, to increase warehouse manager/logistics manager productivity and efficiency by relieving them of certain decision making workloads? For example, software only robots have the capacity to be trained to make decisions on such things as release dates for new products and recruitment, especially important when it comes to managing labour resources and overheads at times of peak demand and troughs.
AI will also empower warehouse managers to finally progress from being firefighters and doers of often quite menial tasks, to true managers and leaders of people. They will have information easily to hand to conduct, for example, highly personalised performance reviews based on the fit bits their operatives will be wearing, therefore helping devise more tailored training and career development plans for personnel.
As to when we can expect large scale adoption of robotics and AI in the warehouse is difficult to forecast. It will be a quiet revolution, driven by market education and demand, and suppliers' ability to innovate and bring to market the right solutions at the right price. The cost of a robot will far outweigh a human being on the basis of the amount of time and cost spent on programming and then configuring these devices, plus the level of additional customisation required per customer installation and application. As demand rises, probably driven by larger companies initially, the base costs will start to reduce but this won't be happening on a broad scale in many warehouses for the foreseeable future.
However, first and foremost, the warehouse and fulfilment management industry needs to 'believe' in robots. For this to happen, any unfounded fears and prejudices need to be put to one side as a pragmatic approach is necessary to avoid finding all robots guilty without charge.
Keeping an open mind and being prepared to accept technology-driven change, just as we have done over the past 35 years, will doubtless lead to many positives for humans working in the e-commerce warehouse, helping them cope with growing workloads and increasingly onerous deadlines for meeting ever shorter customer delivery deadlines.
Slowly but surely, born out of necessity, the age of AI and robotics in the e-commerce warehouse is dawning. Look forward to an era of increased productivity, less stress, greater job satisfaction and improved career prospects - a better quality of life.