The Intersection of Warehouse Growth and Employee Scarcity
The combination of continually growing consumer and business demand, a supply chain permanently altered after adapting to Covid, and the Great Resignation has cumulatively impacted the nation’s warehousing landscape like never before. The US Bureau of Labor statistics reported over 500,000 job openings in warehousing and transportation in August of 2022 alone. Employee scarcity and high worker turnover are of critical impact to the efficiency and productivity of the nation’s warehouses, particularly when factoring in the costs of continually replacing and training new employees –which can equate to almost 25% of a worker’s average annual salary.
But the impact goes well beyond resignations. Workers are also retiring in record numbers and taking years of braintrust with them – leaving a skills gap with the remaining multigenerational workforce that must rapidly learn their jobs without the benefit of shared expertise from their seasoned colleagues. A sobering combination given that over the past 10 years, labor requirements in logistics facilities have effectively doubled . These dynamics are significantly affecting the productivity of individual businesses as well as the collective economy.
For many warehouse managers technology, such as robotics and voice-directed work (VDW), is one answer to this challenge. Although estimates today point to less than eight percent of US warehouses deploying mobile robotics, many forecasts signal an upward trajectory for the market in the future.
Helping to Move Goods and to Do Good
Introducing robotics and voice into the warehousing environment can be a win for both the facilities manager and the employee, positively impacting productivity and morale alike by helping address labor shortages, improve efficiencies and opening the door for employees who would otherwise be unable to work.
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), for example, can perform many tasks in warehouse or distribution center settings (including moving pallets, product picking and fulfillment) that are typically viewed as repetitive or non value-added, thereby freeing the workforce to perform other activities and ultimately increasing productivity.
Voice technology also can be used in many warehouse and industrial processes such as picking and replenishment. By directing employees to the right location, telling them the quantity of a given item they need to pick and directing them to the next location and so on, employees can move quickly and efficiently to complete tasks with minimal training. Leveraging the same processes to replenish inventory means that items can quickly be returned to the correct location and be readily available for resale – significantly reducing the dollars lost from items being placed in the wrong location.
In addition, robotics and voice technology can serve to augment more labor-intensive functions that are physically taxing (and potentially less safe for humans to perform) such as lifting heavier items or transporting items across picking points. In such scenarios, the technologies of AMRs and voice are performing repetitive, time-consuming and dangerous tasks to save on manual labor and enable greater efficiencies or, in the case of peak or holiday seasons, reduce seasonal training and overtime allocations.
Shining The Light On The Forgotten Worker
In the AMR and voice technology benefit conversation, there’s another critical opportunity these technologies unlock –opening the labor pool of “forgotten workers” that would otherwise be unable to work. By bridging the gap between a worker’s ability and the task at hand, AMRs and voice technologies can empower additional workers to contribute their productivity to warehousing and industrial teams.
By applying modern technologies in new and innovative ways, AMR and voice technology can open a new greenfield of possibilities. Warehouses and facilities employing disabled veterans, for example, can deploy robots to help them complete tasks that would otherwise be time consuming and labor intensive such as pushing carts. Robots equipped with audible commands can be combined with Braille barcodes to enable blind workers to perform picking activities. Goods to person robots can allow those with limited mobility to complete picking by moving racks of products to workers in a 10 by 10 workspace – a solution that also raises efficiencies during peak times. AMRs were even used to help keep workers safe during the height of Covid by helping employees maintain safe distancing from one another.
Enabling additional workers to join the warehousing labor force also speaks to a common misconception about AMRs – that they are replacing human resources. Instead, by helping to address labor challenges more efficiently, warehouse managers are able to schedule more work more efficiently and enable their workforce to address more value-added activities. Instead, by leveraging technology to perform repetitive or unsafe activities, employees can complete the more valuable tasks machines cannot perform and even enhance their value by learning to manage robotics and voice functionality where possible.
As today’s warehousing and facilities landscape continues to evolve, the forward-thinking organizations that consider the possibilities of technology deployment and warehouse automation will continue to expand their capabilities and opportunities for ongoing growth.
As the Vice President of Robotics and Voice, John Santagate leads strategy for autonomous mobile robotics, warehouse robotics, and the robotics partner network for Körber. As a key component of Körber’s end-to-end solutions, John ensures his technologies drive customer success and integrate seamlessly with the broader Körber portfolio. Solving complex challenges and opening new opportunities through technology and innovation, John spent his career in supply chain making his customers the most efficient and profitable businesses in their industries. Prior to his role at Körber, John acted as consultant to industry-leading organizations to transform their supply chains with Tata Consultancy Services in the Supply Chain Center of Excellence. He was also a leading robotics and supply chain industry analyst at IDC for five years, where he focused on market trends, forecasts, and thought leadership for supply chain robotics and business process evolution. In addition to his VP role, John is an adjunct instructor at The University of Massachusetts Lowell where he teaches a course on supply chain and logistics. John Santagate is an avid American football fan, and each year he and his wife take a trip to visit a different college football stadium to catch a game.