The distribution centers (DCs) at the heart of today’s global retailers reflect the velocity of business, from the instantaneous purchasing made possible by e-commerce to the fulfillment operations that enable same-day deliveries. What makes this high-speed commerce possible is an increasingly wide array of high-performance automated warehouse systems and robotics.
Within DCs, sophisticated systems integrated with advanced software move materials faster, more effectively, and more accurately than ever before. Roaming shuttles deliver items directly to goods-to-person workstations, often supported by an automated army of fork trucks, palletizing robots, and robotic pickers.
Of course advanced automated systems and robots don’t operate in a vacuum. It is easy to forget the human side of these systems and the role it plays in their success. Like all technologies and tools, even the most advanced automated systems and robots must be backed up by people who are skilled in their use and best practices required to realize their full potential, maintenance and upkeep.
Any system implementation is incomplete if it does not also include strategies to train and upskill employees. To do so, consider the following:
- Focus on the opportunities that come with automation and robotics. For those in roles that are being augmented with automation, the opportunity to learn about the care and use of such systems represents a significant career advancement to acquire highly marketable skills. Additionally, this limits the manual, highly-repetitive tasks that make warehouse roles some of the most injury-prone according to recent estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Leadership should stress these and other positive impacts.
- Experience in manual warehouse roles is often very valuable in the operation of automated systems and robots. I recently worked with a client’s pickers during the initial planning sessions for a new, highly automated high-capacity DC. As in other deployments, many of the most experienced and longstanding employees in manual roles possessed the most comprehensive understanding of the business processes that would need to be considered. Their knowledge of workflows was particularly valuable. These individuals are therefore some of the first that should be considered, not only for new roles focused on the operation and upkeep of automation, but also the upskilling required.
- Look for employees who possess the talents and desire to work with automated systems like robots, AS/RS, autonomous vehicles, etc. Candidates should be driven employees, but those who are mechanically inclined are not the only ones to consider. Gamers, for example, are typically very strategic and adept at seeing patterns – an inclination directly applicable to fast-based warehouse environments. Remember that desire and attitude are key: the skills required to use, perfect and maintain automated systems can be learned and honed. Ideal candidates should also be self-starters who can take advantage of the autonomy automation gives to end users.
- If possible, involve your top-pick employees and members of your automation team during the construction phase of automated and robotic systems. This is particularly important when new DCs are built or facilities are modernized. A large DC for a multi-channel retailer can include innumerable components. You want your workforce to be immediately familiar with the system when you turn it on – not a year after its operational. Early in your automation project is also the perfect time for your employees to learn from those who implement the systems and robotics and creates an opportunity to upskill in-house staff that should not be missed.
- Create opportunities to invest in your employees. Access to a formal “Higher Education” course of study is inaccessible for many, and at times over-emphasized in the corporate world. There is, however, an alternative. Many colleges and universities now offer established training programs and certifications in robotics and engineering-related topics that can be used to strengthen in-house automation teams. Often such programs can be designed to directly address your operational imperatives.
Behind every great automated warehouse are knowledgeable and skilled people. Today, when the pace and scale of business requires more automation and innovation than ever before, it has never been more important to focus on the human resources needed to operate it, maintain it and perfect it over time. Keeping that in mind is the first step in realizing the full potential of the most promising innovations now revolutionizing materials handling.
Colin Thompson has more than two decades of experience in materials handling. He currently serves as the Vice President of Operations at Vanderlande, North America, where he oversees day-to-day operations. Colin received his Bachelor of Science in Computer Sciences from the University of Liverpool and also serves on the Robotics and Mechatronics Engineering Industrial Advisory Board at Kennesaw State University.