When it comes to warehousing and the use of robotics to manage and maintain a competitive supply chain, the conversations usually begin with the potential for these powerhouse machines to replace workers and eliminate the need for humans in the facility. As this might be the case in some situations, the bigger concern surrounds how to successfully create an environment where both humans and robots are able to safely collaborate, creating more efficiencies within the warehouse sector while at the same time optimizing the processes many still operate manually.
This is the concept of interconnecting the mind and abilities of these machines to support human workers, not replace them. The truth of the matter is, there are some things humans can do that robots simply cannot do, and the fear of robots replacing humans is backwards compared to what is really going on in meetings between warehouse managers and creators of autonomous solutions.
Dan Khasis, founder of Route4Me, a unique route optimization software platform, takes a deeper look at the emerging relationship between robotics and warehouses and dissects the reality of what is really going on when managing the supply chain inside the modern warehouse. “There’s this perception and risk associated with the subjects of robotics and job security,” he concedes. “It is very common to see a lot of warehouses that are based on the location, the retailer, the company, where their worker population is unionized. Many times, the situation starts with C-level executives who discover the technology that can drive efficiencies in the warehouse, save money and that work very well.”
“However, word gets back to the union workers that the expectation is for them to work twice as much in the same amount of time and they quickly realize it isn’t realistic or possible,” Khasis continues. “At that point, technology adoption is eliminated because people cannot be replaced. At that point, they accept the inefficiencies and turn to loopholes to deal with the issues that are clearly present. It is not the worker’s fault, but there is a struggle with getting warehouse workers onboard with these new technologies in addition to the long hours that are required to keep up.”
Khasis goes on to explain that the ability to do the picking and packing in the warehouse is still one of the biggest pain points in the warehousing sector. An example he cites is weight restrictions and what makes sense in terms of safety and simplicity. Can one send a robot to pick up a fridge that weighs 800 pounds versus utilizing someone in a forklift to lift the fridge? Sure, but some would question how a robot could prove to be more beneficial than a forklift in situations like these.
“There are basic and common risks associated with robotics, such as employees getting injured, and the technology exists to avoid such accidents,” Khasis says. “In terms of a hybrid model, you’re able to have things such as augmented reality where if one is driving through the warehouse, there’s clearly the safety component in question. There are heavy items throughout the warehouse that are elevated and there needs to be a population of properly trained employees to minimize these risks along with the technology to support it.”
Heavy lifting comes into play with this pain point and Khasis emphasizes that well-trained individuals are more favorable over advanced technology in these cases. With every advancement comes risk and it’s about measuring the risk against current and potential resources that determines the best way to optimize operations while mitigating these risks. The warehouse sector is aiming to operate optimally and safely as that is where competitive advantage is ultimately found.
“The hybrid warehouses that are half robots and half autonomous are still an open question regarding the interaction between human workers and robots because there will undoubtedly be issues with how they collaborate together,” Khasis points out. “For example, will there be a specific area for robots and one area for the workers, how we will address collision avoidance, and how they will actually collaborate are the bigger questions still in the process of being solved?”
Leadership in the warehouse sector is experiencing a technological disconnect as well. While many news headlines boast the latest big-name companies adopting a new form of advanced technology, there are still many large companies operating the good old-fashioned way: via Microsoft Excel or another manual process and dismissing the option of advanced technology completely. This isn’t a bad thing, but Khasis emphasizes that these companies could maximize their bottom lines by adopting technologies that aren’t incompatible with emerging technology.
“There’s a generational shift in the warehouse,” he says. “For example, the VP or director in today’s warehouse might not have faith in the modern technology approaches available. We sometimes have friendly arguments with our own customers explaining how something might not ‘look’ better but mathematically and in terms of optimization, it is paramount in comparison and when broken down. There are both trends and realities that differ from what people are talking about versus what’s actually happening.”
Khasis continues: “Many warehouses out there are still using legacy software and there’s a significant amount of big industry players who still have not modernized their systems. Part of that modernization is moving stuff to the cloud and as they move things up to the cloud, opportunities will open up for them to take advantage of newer technologies. These newer technologies on the market are not backward compatible with the relatively obsolete systems that are closed off and still very much in use. They simply do not interact well with other systems.”
For warehouses, proactive measures through advanced technologies are phasing out antiquated systems that require a retrospective approach to the process. Processes Microsoft Excel are still very much part of the manual process Khasis says breaks the dynamic between the adoption of technology and the desired bottom-dollar impact.
“Few companies actually understand what they need to have in each warehouse and when they need it,” he says, “and the way to successfully identify what consumers are demanding is best found through reliable and integrated e-commerce data. In some cases, the warehouse directors will project certain time frames for specific items based on the previous year rather than analyzing data revealing search activity increases within the e-commerce sector.”
These data predictions and trends monitoring can give matchless insight on upcoming and unpredictable events that other manual processes simply cannot accomplish. Weather changes, for example, and alerting warehouses of what to keep in stock versus assuming patterns in spending can make big differences in gaining that advantage over competitors. E-commerce monitoring through this data can give ample information in real-time without the need of someone else providing trend forecasting. This brings extra work costs down for the warehouse worker and increases time savings overall, all while driving the bottom dollar up.
Khasis emphasizes the importance and role advanced technologies will have in providing more opportunities in optimization and human-robot collaborations. With advanced technologies, warehouse managers can better predict what types of deliveries are on the horizon and prepare their warehouse more efficiently, streamlining the process and interactions between automation and warehouse workers.
“The warehouse does not live in a vacuum and it must be able to adapt to upstream and downstream systems. For example, if a shipment is coming in and you have the capability of knowing what is on that vehicle and where it needs to g—assuming you have the technology available to share that information—you can then have the human workers and robots collaborate to make room for that to go smoothly. This can include advanced space allocation, unloader coordination and advanced warehouse space preparations.”
Autonomous vehicles will soon have to adapt to the warehouse as well. The issue of inter-compatibility will undoubtedly be of question.
“One cannot send a delivery vehicle or any other type of truck with a different height from the warehouse because the robots can’t access it,” Khasis notes. “The concept of inter-compatibility between internal robotics and external autonomous systems will be particularly important in the near future. We believe that in order for there to be efficiencies, there must be integration, and everything needs to collaborate.
“Our patent–called Autonomous Supply Chain, and the point of this is to reiterate that a warehouse can have the best software on the market but if it isn’t compatible or the timing isn’t right, then it doesn’t matter. That brings up the question of timing and what determines the right time and how it impacts planning which is very important.”
Without the key element of integration, the most advanced technology simply will not present the results sought for competitive advantage in the warehouse, negating the desired effects from the dollars spent on adopting them. For companies seeking to redefine the warehouse, they must consider in what ways integration is possible and affordable.
“We look at all the assets including the people, the vehicles, the potential shipments on the way in and out of the country, the warehouse and its capabilities and location, and figure the best way to optimize routes,” Khasis says. “For some of the biggest global companies, this is still being done with manual interpretations, which includes reporting analysis after the fact. There is little preventable action with this type of process, and it takes more of a retrospective approach.”
The option of accepting inefficiencies is simply not going to cut it anymore. Processes are changing, technology is becoming the new standard, and people are needed that are open to learning and adopting methods of work that increase productivity while supporting long-term and short-term goals in the supply chain.
“The goal of Autonomous Supply Chain is to get in front of the problems and decisions rather than behind them while utilizing an advanced technology that can collaborate across the board,” Khasis says. “By incorporating all techniques across different business units and different business entities, the process is streamlined. When this is all put together, we are estimating anywhere from 25 to 50 percent value creation, savings and profit increase mainly because a lot of this process is currently human dependent.”
More than ever before, the concept of synchronization in the supply chain is needed. Customer demands will continue to rise and become more complex as time goes by. In the age of Amazon and next-day delivery, the warehouse simply cannot afford to operate with one or the other–being robots or humans. Both are a crucial part of the bigger picture that have a significant impact on business.
“The warehouse location is equally important, and the industry is extremely behind in understanding warehouse site selection,” Khasis says. “If you have a warehouse in the wrong area–even with 100 percent support from the union with the best robots on the market—it is going to be difficult because now you need different people fulfilling roles that weren’t accounted for, such as drivers. Sure, you might have a cheaper warehouse but if the location isn’t carefully considered, your savings are quickly dissolved in other valuables that weren’t modeled into the original budget. This process is also still manually done throughout the industry and can be optimized using our software.”
Each element in the process will undoubtedly impact the success and outcome of your warehouse, beginning with site selection to worker population to technology integration. In an age where business goes to people instead of people going to businesses, ensuring all parts are synchronized is a critical part of the bigger picture of gaining and maintaining competitive advantage and keeping up with an evergreen marketplace.
Dan Khasis is a technology entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of Route4Me, a unique route optimization software.