How to bridge the labour gap with smart robotics

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Globally, warehouses and distribution centres (DCs) are increasingly facing shortages of skilled workers. This is challenging their ability to meet the complex demands of the logistics sector and support the anticipated growth levels.

This emerging issue has widely stemmed from the rapid expansion of e-commerce and omni-channel retail. In response, Vanderlande is now at the forefront of advancing the robotic innovations that could transform warehouse process automation.

For example, we have already made positive steps in the food retail market with our STOREPICK solution. This uses a robotic arm to automatically load roll containers and pallets.

Shifting requirements

In the past, retailers distributed pallets containing large volumes to a single store or wholesalers. However, with the rise of e-commerce, warehouses and DCs are handling increasing levels of single items and small orders. This requirement is not only labour intensive, but impacts on capacity, taking up valuable storage space.

Whether a company originated out of the e-commerce boom or is a traditional retailer adapting to a more omni-channel approach, the predicament is much the same – they need more people to support growth. They must also be the right type of people.

The quality of service that an e-commerce company provides to its end users is of paramount importance. If orders aren’t fulfilled correctly and delivered on time, we know this can have far-reaching consequences through social media channels, for example.

Intense demand

Typically, we see many similar businesses concentrated in the same urban areas, bringing a heightened demand to that locality. The pressure is intensified further when seasonal peaks occur. If everyone needs the same people, at the same time, a severe workforce issue develops.

In areas such as North America, where warehouses and DCs have been conventionally based in more rural locations, the pressure on lead times is necessitating a more decentralised approach. As such, smaller hubs are being built in urban areas in order to be closer to the final mile and achieve shorter delivery times.

There are countries, for example China and some in Eastern Europe, where employment rates have ordinarily diverged from the global picture. However, towards the end of 2017, we have started to observe similar patterns emerging in some of these markets too.

Geographically speaking, our customers are making different requirements from our solutions but they still generally ask the same question – how to achieve a higher capacity and throughput, but with less people?

A cooperative approach

Automation is a critical factor, with robots increasingly taking over specific processes that have been traditionally handled by operators. However, the complexity in fully achieving this is extremely high. We estimate that it will be another five years or more before we get to a level in which robots are able to fulfil 90% of the operation.

While progressing this technology, we are already developing solutions from which we can create a seamless cooperation between the operator and the robot. For example, conventional robot technology is ideal for highly repetitive tasks, heavy lifting and working in harsh environments.

Human operators are adept at dealing with more diverse situations, in which exceptions have to be considered and a level of creative thinking is essential. By intelligently combining these respective competencies, we can create a balance that increases efficiency while lowering risk.

No need to wait

We have already seen encouraging results with the integration of Vanderlande’s Smart Item Robotics (SIR) into our automated solutions. With the capability to securely handle a dynamic range of products with the flexibility of permitting operator intervention, SIR is a natural first step towards robotising our customers’ current processes with limited risk.

The next will be to increase the capacity (even beyond 600 items per hour), speed and picking accuracy. This needs to be coupled with a high degree of flexibility, less infrastructure and scalability during peaks. This is precisely when SIR, alongside other innovations such as automated guided vehicles, will be of vital importance.

Within a year, we expect to see the first working installations built around these principles. However, we acknowledge that more work will be needed in the longer term to increase efficiency.

In designing the total solution, the more we are able to integrate robotics into our customers’ warehousing processes now, the quicker the technology will develop. In this way, we will be able to improve the application, advance the performance and deliver the optimal solution to the present labour scarcity issue, as well as create future sustainability in this area.

Curious to find out how you can run your operations more efficiently using SIR? Contact us for more information.


Ruben Jakobs

Executive Sales Director

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