In typical Modex fashion, robotics and automation were among the hot topics discussed by keynote speakers, exhibitors, and attendees. A vast array of capabilities, sizes, and industry-specific robotics could be found throughout the show floor, each showing off a new capability. It’s clear that robotics continue to evolve and show no signs of slowing down progress in meeting demand within warehouses and distribution centers.
Mike Futch, President of Tompkins Robotics made this point very clear during his session on Wednesday afternoon titled, “The Lights Out DC/FC: How Close Can We Get?”
Futch addressed the use of various technologies to address workforce constraints while improving the effectiveness and performance of the supply chain. He identified what advancements will assist in solving bottlenecks such as facility constraints, space issues, and the current situation in unemployment. As these challenges persist, robotics continues to mature.
“There’s a limited workforce, a limited number of people that can drive the distance to enter the immediate geographic region, and these larger buildings are competing for that workforce that’s already at a low unemployment rate along with offering increased wages and siphoning workers off of others. This is a real challenge for some markets.”
“Labor is scarce and we have record-low unemployment, typically to expand capacity from a volume perspective and companies are turning to more shifts. If you already have a tight labor market and you’re adding shifts, where are the workers coming from? And this creates a bigger problem.”
The workforce is a key constraint and while workforce rates are lower than others in some places, Futch states that companies are competing to stay ahead of demand through increased wages while solving the best approach to a limited workforce.
Machines continue to do the same things a human can do but without interruptions with repetitive, difficult, or taxing work that inevitably fatigues the human body. That being said, the industry still requires a skilled workforce and robotics should not be purchased for their appeal. It’s becoming clear that a blend of workers and robotics is a more common theme for integrating such advancements over the idea that robotics will “overtake” worker’s jobs. In fact, robotics is providing a way to re-establish worker tasks rather than eliminating the worker.
“Robotics has matured tremendously from where they were a few years ago. About 5-10 years ago, the pick-and-place robots at the show could not do the things they are capable of doing now. Two years from now, they’ll have the capability to do twice as much as now. Robotics is maturing and meeting the three R’s: improve rate, improve reliability, and improve the range of products and items,” he explained. ”
In terms of a fully automated DC, Futch added that about 60-85 percent of manual tasks can be automated realistically rather than a “lights out” center.
“Beyond the pick-and-place robots, other robots are doing the same thing: creating a blur of separation between what a human can do and what a machine can do.”