Bridge the Gap: Automation as Labor Augmentation
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Bridge the Gap: Automation as Labor Augmentation

By Mick McCormick, Robotics Business Leader, Yale Materials Handling Corporation

Mick McCormick, Robotics Business Leader, Yale Materials Handling Corporation

It’s hard to have any supply chain conversation without covering labor. One look at a recent jobs report reveals why – unemployment currently stands at a 50-year low, just 3.6 percent. But despite the economy operating at virtually full employment, the growth – and the associated need for more labor – do not stop.

Not just something beautiful to have. Something you need to have.

According to a September 2018 CBRE report, rapid e-commerce growth will create demand for an additional 452,000 warehouse and distribution workers from 2018 to 2019. Even for big names like Amazon, labor is difficult to find. During its much-publicized jobs day, the company received 20,000 job applications – not even half the number required to fill their 50,000 open positions. This gap between the limits of the labor force and the needs of the supply chain makes robotics not just something beautiful to have, but something we need to have.

Think about robots as part of strategic workforce planning. They’re valuable tools that help raise overall productivity by working alongside human co-workers as a labor augmentation solution.

What’s the extent of this positive impact on productivity? The same CBRE report pegs the productivity gain from robotics in the distribution industry to be as much as 46 percent.

Robots in the real world

Historically, repetitive tasks that do not require the human capacity to think and adapt on the fly are prime candidates for automation. Bearing that in mind, managers can evaluate their most costly, yet essential processes and subtasks for automation.

“Mobile robots are adept at traveling long distances, continuously moving pallet loads and smaller quantities from point A to point B, without breaks or fatigue”

Take order fulfillment, for example. In the average warehouse, order picking accounts for approximately 50 percent of total operating costs. A more in-depth look at this process reveals that employees assigned to pick orders can spend up to half of their time traveling between pick locations – not picking. The strengths of human pickers and mobile robots best align with different tasks in the picking process and can work together to help boost overall efficiency.

Mobile robots are adept at traveling long distances, continuously moving pallet loads and smaller quantities from point A to point B, without breaks or fatigue. They’re advanced enough to detect obstacles and adjust their paths accordingly, relying on their own ‘map’ of the facility to pursue alternate routes.

Humans, on the other hand, cannot continuously move between pick locations without tiring. However, they do have the most advanced perception, cognition, and motion planning systems in the world. The same capabilities that allow us to set the table and take out the trash are uniquely well suited to find, grasp, and move individual items to pick and pack orders.

By dividing tasks according to the strength of each type of worker, both can be more productive. Pickers no longer sacrifice picking time traveling to select locations, and storage aisles are in turn relieved of congestion, allowing mobile robots to bring items to pickers as efficiently as possible.

Manufacturing is also home to plenty of cobotics potentials. Moving inventory to fuel production lines is an ideal job for mobile robots. Robotic lift trucks can bring pallet loads or kits to assembly stations, often interfacing with humans at each end.

These examples are just a few of the ways that humans and their robotic co-workers can accomplish materials handling work. Robots excel at repetitive, low-value tasks – just the sort of jobs that could lead to repetitive stress injuries. That leaves higher-order activities for humans, complete with their potential for greater job satisfaction.

Evolving jobs

History has taught us that innovation creates new tools, jobs, and even industries. Just 15 years ago, who would have dreamed of jobs like “iPhone app developer” or “search engine optimization specialist?” Or even further back, industries like “wireless technology” and “e-commerce?”

Robotics is primed for a similar effect on the economy. A recent report by McKinsey & Company includes a top-end estimate of 800 million jobs displaced due to robotic automation. But in the same scenario, the company estimates significant job growth that more than offsets job losses, up to 890 million new jobs.

In the warehouse and manufacturing facility, this effect shifts work to robotic solutions and creates new roles for humans, driving a greater need for skilled technical labor. Think robot maintenance, machine supervision, and data specialists, all working together to keep systems running, analyze performance, and optimize them for continued improvement.

Robots becoming normal

Introducing robots is gaining ground in enterprises, both large and small. Pressure from e-commerce will continue to mean critical supply chain operations face growing pains, which makes robotic automation an attractive option. Deploying robots to augment labor is an increasingly attractive solution to drive the productivity gains needed to meet ever-growing demand and allow labor and automation to play to their respective strengths.

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