The demand for goods continues to increase alongside a dwindling warehouse labor pool, adding to ongoing delays in the global supply chain. As staffing continues to pose challenges and the availability of automation solutions increases, a shift away from people-optimized facilities to ones optimized for technology is a viable approach to tackling today’s challenges. Warehouses face the need for rapid change while having to deal with a high degree of variation that is difficult to automate. Transitioning to automation requires flexible solutions capable of integrating into human-centric spaces to handle increased volume and perform unsafe and repetitive work, leaving staff to focus on more specialized and technology-assisted tasks.
Warehouses have evolved over the last several decades, motivated in large part by a surge in demand for goods. In 2021, JLL released data showing that demand for logistics facilities had reached an all-time high, reflecting an increase in consumer demand for e-commerce. With the number of warehouses growing, opportunities to optimize for efficiency and productivity are greater than ever before.
Handling an increased flow of goods presents operational challenges. Optimizing for technology – rather than people – is possible today, and a transformational step toward the warehouses of the future.
Labor challenges may pose the biggest hurdle in meeting surging demands. Staff shortages, compounded by high turnover, are plaguing operations. Turnover and subsequent onboarding are costly both in terms of money and loss of productivity. For example, training a forklift operator to pick orders around the warehouse could take up to three months, including onboarding, safety protocols, and operational training. Those investments have limited payoff since, according to reports, 42% of warehouse employees leave in a year or less.
A shift to a technology-enabled approach would sidestep the need for a three-month training period, and the solution could be put to work far sooner. A warehouse in the Northeast that I recently visited deployed an autonomous forklift that was able to streamline operations in an area that once caused bottlenecks, and the forklift was up and running within two hours, saving time, money, and resources. Employees were able to focus on more specialized tasks not well replicated by automation, ones that prioritize social and emotional, management and technological skills.
A tech optimization strategy does not mean eliminating or devaluing human labor – on the contrary, people will continue to play an important role in automation-heavy warehouse designs. It is physically demanding work with repetitive motions that leave the body prone to injury, such as manually unloading trailers and containers, that is ideal for automation.
Automation can only handle so much warehouse complexity – and complexities in those settings are typically abounding. Rather than taking on physically challenging tasks, workers can perform tasks requiring more cognitive ability or manual dexterity that are better executed by people, such as removing shrink wrap.
When integrating robots, the fleet must also be managed, and people will need to fill those roles to assist robots in maintaining productivity and managing variability within the warehouse, or to troubleshoot workflow issues when the need arises.
Optimizing for technology has an added benefit because it aids in recruitment efforts. A recent analysis by Harvard Business Review found that 42% of warehouse workers are optimistic about automation’s impact on job safety. Advances in technology, such as collision avoidance and virtual guards enabled by lidar, have made a hybrid human and robot workforce safe and possible. The report also found 38% expressed enthusiasm for the increased efficiency that automation brings. For an industry that continues to struggle to meet hiring needs, technology investments could prove an enticing recruitment and retention tactic.
The labor challenges affecting the warehousing industry are likely to continue into the foreseeable future. And strong consumer demand is likely to hold, if not increase dramatically in the coming years. Adapting to this changing landscape now is imperative. Flexibility is the standard of the future. Shifting operations to lean into strengths – of automation to tackle weight-bearing and injury-prone work, and of people to lend dexterity to management and fine-motor manual tasks – will better position warehouses in these times. Future warehouses can be designed around automation to achieve new levels of productivity, but in the interim, technology can be an important partner in existing warehouse designs.
Mike Fair is lead product manager, warehouse robotics at Boston Dynamics.