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Automation and robotics for SMEs

SEC Storage's Harry Watts explores how affordable, flexible and efficient automation and robotics - available to SMEs – might be able to help combat the loss of workers in the warehouse.

It has been well documented that the reality of Brexit, a global pandemic and unprecedented supply chain disruptions, has forever changed the way we operate within the warehouse and logistics sector.

There is increasing pressure on warehouse operators to increase stock holding and efficiency levels whilst addressing supply chain challenges, sustainability and crippling labour shortages. Furthermore, these challenges result in the need to consider technological solutions to allow operators to remain efficient and grow in line with burgeoning e-commerce demands.

The widespread nature of the challenges is highlighted in this year's MHI Annual Report, with the top three challenges seen by warehouse operators being supply chain disruption & shortages (57%), hiring & retaining workers (54%) and customer demands for faster response times (51%).

The increase in consumer demand in terms of order quantity and service quality has resulted in frenetic up-scaling of order processing, which has prompted a rise in automation and robotics implementations in warehouse operations. This trend towards automation has been supported by many factors, including the increased capacity, improved operational efficiency, and increasingly rapid ROI these solutions can offer. However, underlining this trend is the ongoing, industry-wide labour crisis – where warehouse operatives are growing scarcer every day, seemingly.

According to the CILT, 54% of logistics companies will see "severe" skills and worker shortages by 2024, particularly in back-office, warehousing, and driving roles. This issue is driven by several factors, including an ageing workforce and around 80,000 EU nationals leaving the workforce in 2020. With such a level of skills shortage within the warehouse and logistics sector predicted, it will have long-term, detrimental implications if we do not act now.

So is automation & robotics the silver bullet for this problem?

No. Whilst, thankfully, automation & robotics is becoming increasingly accessible and affordable, it is not appropriate in many cases and must be carefully considered before implementation. Any investment must form part of a coherent, strategic, cross-functional strategy to maximise benefits.

However, even though recent additions to the automation stable, such as highly flexible and scalable autonomous mobile robotic (AMR) systems, have become increasingly accessible, in many warehouse applications, the economics or practicality of automation means it is inappropriate. However, does that mean that we have no options in these cases? 

When contemplating a new warehouse solution, we must consider the problem holistically. Of course, processes and equipment are essential candidates for change; however, in the modern warehouse, we must not overlook the possibility of augmenting our people too.

The workforce in warehouses today is under immense strain to deliver efficiencies and service in increasingly demanding conditions. With more stock moving through warehouses and an increase in order processing demands and shorter timeframes to fulfil, it is little wonder existing warehouse staff are becoming disillusioned, with recruitment drives finding few numbers wishing to enter the industry.

However, emerging technologies are being developed to help combat this issue, including new tech that 'augments' our workers, not just our operations, which can offer significant benefits. Augmentation tech can help workers operate more safely, quickly, effectively, scalably, and – importantly - more happily.

Augmenting The Workforce

There are many different types of augmentation technologies available. For example, in manual and physically demanding roles, bionic enhancements such as exoskeletons can combine machine power with human competence by assisting operatives in tasks such as repetitive heavy lifting or awkward loading. Exoskeletons can enable heavier or more awkward lifts to be carried out safely and significantly reduce the negative health impact of repetitive lifting on operatives.

Another augmentation technology becoming increasingly capable are "smart" glasses that rely on "heads up display" or Augmented Reality to help visualise instructions and give visual cues to workers. Which aisle to go to, which items to find, how many to pick, and in what precise order are all communicated directly to the operative using vision enhancement technology and can highlight increasingly complex targets in real-time. The potential of this technology to reduce errors and deskill processes is remarkable.

Order picking can further be enhanced by introducing other forms of augmentative technology, such as collaborative robotics systems (aka cobots), whereby lightweight robots work closely and safely alongside human operatives by supporting them with tasks more suited to robots. An example would be collaborative robotic trolleys (CRTs), a type of autonomous guided vehicle (AGV) that follows behind or meets a picker at a pick location. The operative then places the order items into an onboard container, and once full, or the order is complete, the cobot makes its way independently to a pack station. The worker is free to continue picking into other AGVs without leaving the pick zone. CRTs help staff increase productivity whilst reducing the physical demands of lugging heavy orders. CRTs can be particularly powerful in 'retrofit' applications since, invariably, no other physical changes must be made to accommodate them.

People Power

In a modern warehouse, efficiency and maximising productivity are essential goals, particularly in light of the labour shortage. The changing demands on warehouse operations are prompting organisations to turn to technology to provide a solution. However, it is essential that when considering potential options, ALL available technologies are considered, not just the ones most frequently discussed. The goal of all warehouse efficiency projects should be to optimise ROI whilst managing risk and increasing sustainability, and it should never be assumed that no modern technology is available or accessible to an organisation or operation, regardless of size or type.

Effectively creating a solution requires holistic analysis and awareness of all available solutions. However, in many cases, the solution may not be as expensive or disruptive to an operation as one may think. Effective collaborative and augmentative technologies exist and are growing in affordability, accessibility and capability. Their ability to assist operatives in reaching heightened levels of productivity, scalability and safety means that they should no longer be viewed as gimmicks and should be given proper attention when considering a warehouse operation's next step.

If you wish to discuss how augmentative and collaborative technologies may fit your operation, please reach out to us on 01438 731990.

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The Logistics Report: Focus on Automation
The Logistics Report: Focus on Automation

March report uncovers the major reasons why logistics businesses are seeking automation solutions, primarily labour issues, booming e-commerce and the growing importance of resilient supply chains. It also provides a range of real-life examples of the solutions at work.

The Logistics Report: Focus on Automation