Humans and Robots: The Workforce for the Modern Warehouse

As National Robotics Week kicks off, I’m reminded – again – that questions about robots and people in the labor force continue to take place. I’ve been writing and talking about the model for human-robot collaboration for a while now, and certainly keep my eyes and ears open for opportunities that showcase the rationale and the value.

Consider then, warehouse operations. The pandemic has fundamentally changed the role of warehouses, distribution centers and fulfillment operations. I read somewhere recently that an estimated 28,500 warehouses will be launched thanks to the online economy. These operations are crucial to organize distribution in a way that consumers – who now expect that anything they need or want can be ordered with a click and delivered next day or even same day – can have their expectations met.

In the past year, with very few hiccups in the grand scheme of things, the model has worked. Now, though, there are signs that this is a supply chain with one very weak link: Warehouse workers. Labor availability is a problem that is projected to get much worse over the next decade. National headlines about one e-commerce company’s battle to ward off unionization of its workers in Alabama has brought attention to the ongoing debate over jobs, work and the role of automation.

I’ve been in the automation space for many years now, and so have been watching, listening and occasionally weighing in the topic. This push for a union illustrates so clearly the issue: Some work in the warehouse is physically demanding, ergonomically challenging, and very stressful.

In places where robots and humans work collaboratively, people focus on the aspects of work where human intelligence are essential – like rapid perception, dexterous grasping, and problem solving and quality improvement. Churn rates, workplace injuries and training and onboarding costs drop. Customer satisfaction improves.

The on-demand, e-commerce economy will not go away. Consumers have tasted near-instant gratification and are not going to go back. The need for human-robot collaboration in warehouse operations is clear – and better still – possible.