Currently, with the weak economy, many companies are not thinking so much about labor shortages. But here is a sobering thought: In 2011, the oldest of the 76 million baby boomers (people born between 1945 and 1964) will turn 65, the traditional retirement age. A systematic labor shortage is expected to impact many industries.
In the warehouse, ergonomics may be part of the answer to this challenge. Companies can use it as a tool to retain, or even attract, older workers.
With this topic in mind, I reached out to Mike Ogle, Vice President of Educational & Technical Services at Material Handling Industry of America (MHIA). It turns out MHIA has a product council called Ergonomic Assist Systems and Equipment (E.A.S.E), and its website contains some interesting presentations on this topic.
One of the presentations asserts that “the effects of manual material handling represent the biggest single contributor to worker injury in the United States.” These injuries can result from lifting, stretching, reaching, bending, stooping, and walking.
I think I’m in good physical shape, but I recently pulled a muscle tying my shoe. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, and I’m not willing to attribute it to age. And I also can’t claim the injury was the result of something manly I did, like putting up drywall. So, the topic of using handling systems specifically designed to prevent injuries from bending and stooping has special resonance for me.
Below is an example of such a system. High density vertical storage systems can be designed to put each item at the correct height for picking. These systems have been around for quite a while.
But I’m more excited about how emerging mobile robotic technologies will change the warehouse. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) can be integrated with voice systems so that they lift a pallet to the right height to enable mixed pallet case building. If a case is located on the floor, it leaves the pallet lift at floor level; if it is on the top rack, the pallet is lifted to an ergonomic height to reduce bending.
Kiva Systems has a solution where mobile robots bring pallets containing a single SKU to stationary workers. These workers pick from that pallet and build mixed SKU case pallets or put them on conveyors for take away. Office Depot is among the first companies I’m aware of that has implemented such a solution.
In the future, we can visualize workers standing in a well to pick from a pallet carried by the robot, and then placing cases on adjustable pallet lifts that maintain a pallet at the top of the load in the 30” to 40” ergonomic window. These devices can also be fitted with turntables for “near side” loading. This can reduce the time spent walking around the pallet when building it.
In conclusion, I believe baby boom demographics will lead to ergonomics playing an increasing role in the warehouse. Now if only I can learn to apply these principles to tying my shoes!