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Integrating talent and technology

How can warehouse operators integrate their technology and talent?

At a recent roundtable discussion hosted by Voiteq – soon to be known as Körber – and SHD Logistics, we explore this critical topic with colleagues from leading operators including NHS Supply Chain and DHL. Deputy Editor James Burman reports.

Alex Harvey, Engineering Director at Ocado
Clare Bottle, Associate Director: Warehousing at Coca-Cola European Partners
Guy Willott, Head of New Business at Voiteq
James Turpin, Head of Logistics at NHS Supply Chain
Jim Hartshorne, Managing Director at DHL Supply Chain UK
Kyle O’Donnell, Product Owner – Business Intelligence Solutions at Voiteq
Mike Vernon, Head of Innovation at Kuehne & Nagel
Nick Hay, CEO at Fowler Welch
Sean Elliott, Global CTO at Körber Logistics – Software Business Unit at Körber
Tripta Kershaw, Director of Product at Voice & Vision at Körber

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New technologies are changing the supply chain of today, and more importantly, tomorrow. Voiteq was the first to introduce voice-directed work into UK warehouses, and for the past 20 years, its expertise, knowledge and technology suite has evolved – just like the industry. No longer ‘just’ voice specialist, since the 2018 acquisition by international technology company Körber Group, Voiteq is now the trusted team within Körber that specialises in voice, vision, data analytics and robotics. Voiteq, along with eleven other supply chain technology solution providers, is currently transitioning to the Körber brand. Field experts from within the Voiteq and Körber team hosted this recent Roundtable event – exploring integration of technology and talent within the warehouse. What are the new technology drives? How can you tackle supply chain complexity with flexible and adaptable solutions such as automation, voice, vision, Autonomous Mobile Robots? How can data analytic tools help to understand the bigger picture and become more agile?

Kirsty Adams (KA): What does the warehouse of the future look like? How can we match our talent with our digitalisation and automation goals?

Jim Hartshorne (JH): I think fundamentally, at the heart of the 3PL challenge, is the contradiction between typical contract terms and the amount of time it takes to invest in new technology. Despite being in a world where our customer base might only want a contract for five years, we have started investing heavily in automation which we know is going to work for us in the long term and is flexible enough to work with different customer requirements.

Alex Harvey (AH): The future is very uncertain, and flexibility is the key. We've all invested in existing automation facilities that cost a lot of money; you can't just keep ripping them out. So, the key to developing automation is finding technology that will fit into the processes – where humans have been fantastic – without reducing quality or throughput. JH: I think one of the changes that has come in recent years, is that the equation was always cost versus reward on automation, but now we've seen a reduction in the cost of robotics and automation, so the new factor is actually availability of labour. 

KA: Mike, is automation the answer to the labour shortage?

Mike Vernon (MV): It is a big contributory factor, yes. There is no other avenue to explore really unless you increase your wage bill quite significantly. We are already paying well over the minimum wage in Milton Keynes. Within 80 miles of London, it’s just going up and up and up, and as it does so, the payback of automation looks ever better. It’s also not just the wages, it’s the availability of the people. JH: Another point is that there is a different skillset required. Automation provides jobs that I think people want to work in, and many have the skills and qualifications to do so. We've been using our apprenticeship levy in this way. For example, we operate robotic arms for co-packing environments and by using the apprenticeship levy, we've trained engineers that can develop the tooling for the arms. The actual hardware of the arm is relatively straightforward off the shelf, but the tooling is what makes the difference. Having the capability to change the tooling to match the product gives us a lot of flexibility in how we integrate. It’s a great job opportunity for a young person coming into the industry. It’s an excellent way to develop talent within your environment because you’ve got a much broader range of jobs available to them and great skills. Some of our best people have come through those routes. Some we wouldn’t have directly recruited as an engineer, but they end up there too.

KA: In the context of changing the mindset of investment and introducing new infrastructure, James, what are the challenges you're facing?

James Turpin (JT): The business case is our biggest challenge. There is that desire to have modern, contemporary supply chains supplying the NHS. Politically it’s a very good thing and it saves money for the NHS, but there's also a tension with how quickly you get a return on investment, how much capital can you actually invest in the solution?

AH: I think it comes down to the level of maturity of technology. So again, if you're able to roll out something which is very proven, then it shouldn’t need to be part of the business case. If we look at something like picking and packing, which will relate to the warehouse workers, I often have to talk to them because they get very concerned about job security, and I tell them that my prediction is we will have people as part of the picking and packing process probably beyond my retirement, and that they don’t have to worry about their jobs too much. We will be blending more and more automation with pickers and packers, particularly as we need support for these innovate robotic systems. We can get the robots to reliably pick some items, very reliably, but other items less reliably, and so the engineering support for their maintenance becomes part of the business case. This begins a transition where a person that was manning a picking station is now supporting robots collaboratively. You can program them using a tablet, which is very natural for people. But, more importantly you have the capability with a lot of these robots to backdrive, where you can put it into a training mode and the person can manipulate the robot to do the task, an action which you then save. That task can then be transferred to all the other robot cells straight away.

KA: The adoption rate of new technologies within the warehouse is set to continue to grow throughout 2020 and beyond, will this have a positive impact for supply chain management?

Tripta Kershaw (TK): Yes. For example, there is now potential for voice across a wide range of functional areas that would never have used voice previously – providing significant additional areas for improved operational efficiency. It is also part of a movement towards more agile automation in conjunction with new technologies, such as the use of voice, Autonomous Mobile Robots and Vision.

Sean Elliott (SE): Körber offers a ‘mix and match’ approach ensuring the technology investment can be managed and rolled out in timeframes suitable for the individual operation, preventing large up-front costs and investments. Operations now have the flexibility to adopt new technologies from our partners such as Fetch and Locus robotics - without being locked down. This ultimately allows for expansion and growth with minimal effort.

What is the tech that you want people talking to you about right now?

Nick Hay (NH): I think for me it’s tech with flexibility. If you go back 20 years, there were a multitude of WMS systems, but now there's far fewer of them, because they're much more flexible as systems and can be deployed in multiple environments. That’s what we really need from all automation technology. Technology that can be brought to us and can be deployed easily. At the moment, an awful lot of it feels very bespoke. It’s compatibility, flexibility and generic application that we would be looking for.

AH: Generally, when we talk about automation, I think everyone imagines the physical stuff, but it’s actually things like voice and vision that are the adaptable technologies which don’t have massively high capital investments. These technologies highly compliment automation and robotics. As for the harder automation, the hardware is here today, in fact it has been here for many, many years. What's missing though is the intelligence to make the hardware adaptable. If the current solutions that are on the market were to be retrofitted with enough intelligence and vision systems that they could recognise people and operate in a safe way, for me, that would really unlock the potential of automation technologies.

KA: When we do deploy them, do we have a workforce that’s ready to manage them?

AH: Yes, but I think you have to build the systems in a way which are manageable by people that are not PhDs. So, using picking robots as an example: is there capability for the human to move the arm? Could the human correct the motion of the robot and say, “Don’t do this again; this is what you should be doing”? Embedding capability like that in the new technologies is very important, I think. We also need a shift in attitude towards it. Take Tesla, for example. Tesla has done so many million miles without accidents when compared with human drivers, but anything goes wrong and we don’t trust the technology. We kind of accept human error, we don’t accept machine error. In our warehouses, colleagues really welcome working with automation – they see it as another thing to do and to learn. I'm not aware of any trade union challenges or anything like that; people see it as a way to remove the mundane, hard, backbreaking type of work.

KA: Do they feel upskilled do you think?

JH: Absolutely, it’s a new thing for them to do and they find it exciting; it’s a new opportunity.

Guy Willott (GW): I think looking at a traditional warehouse that doesn’t have much technology, is very demotivating for someone coming into this industry. Automation needs to be seen as an indicator of a desirable place to work. If there's big shiny toys, that’s something that’s going to peak their interest and boost their career path. I think the challenge is for us to really make sure that the vision for the next five to ten years manages the expectations of our graduates and our apprentices; they're expecting this technology to be in use. It will encourage employee loyalty also.

KA: How many millennials do you have within your operations and how have you enticed them?

Clare Bottle (CB): As many as possible. I think there is probably a cohort of people who are already in our business who came up through school 10 or 15 years ago and wanted to work in tech; I don’t think that exists as a concept anymore because for the kids that are at school now, there's no such thing as ‘in tech’ or ‘out of tech’ because there is no ‘out of tech’ – everything is tech!

KA: What jobs do we need in the warehouse that are IT based? What are they? We've talked in the past about data scientists.

GW: I think roles need to be redefined. Data analyst or scientist were very reactive roles based around mining all of the disparate sources of data to try to reconcile them. It could be anything from using a high-level business intelligence tool, to the person who sorts the Excel spreadsheets. The next stage is working out how we use that data in an intelligent way. That's a different skillset. The future is more about behaviour actually – how do people behave and interact and think about problem-solving in real-time situations, as opposed to just handling data.

NH: Another important thing is being a leader and applying this data. The people are managed in operations, the way they actually interact with their staff, the way they look and review their performance becomes far more data driven. That's what we are seeing: there's not only a change in skillsets, but also the job description of these traditional roles within warehouses means having an appreciation that data is a powerful tool that they can use around an operation.

Enisaksoy-iStock-ThinkstockBridge-building artwork

NH: I think the only comment I would make is, that there are an awful lot of people who work for me who would not be interested in anything we’re talking about, they are quite happy to come to work every day and do the same thing.

GW: The question is: are they a value to the business? They may be hitting their numbers like clockwork every day but are they willing and able to be agile and evolve with the way the business works?

AH: I think that is a scary prospect if your entire career has been leveraging your knowledge and using your instincts and now, you're presented with a complex system and you're asked to operate it. No matter how hard you look at it, it’s not obvious. How do we take these highly complex systems and allow people who we've employed for a good duration that are very effective at managing and running warehouses – the operational managers – and allow them to still use their skills and their knowledge but overlay it with technology. Change is hard for people. It’s about providing an environment that allows them to still leverage their skills and knowledge.

NH: It’s about finding a balance and managing your way through. I think that's an important part of leadership, is knowing when and how hard to push.

KA: We’ve talked about how changing of behaviours is key to merging tech and talent and I just wondered if we could discuss how you would do it?

MV: Getting the right people in the right role is absolutely key and doesn’t suit everyone. We put a mini-load system in, quite a big mini-load, but very straight forward in terms of goods-to-person picking. We cherry picked the 15 operators who we felt were open to the new technology, and they became the user acceptance team. It was quite straight forward, but they got to learn about what a mini-load is – having never seen one before in their lives – and they had to learn the technology. More importantly, they learned how it affected the material flows, the type of picking that was done, the placement of the stock within the mini-load and what type of stock we put in it. They led the rest of the workforce because they became the trainers for the people that might not have the capability to take it on so quickly. The kind of people who just wanted to come in each day and do the same thing they'd always done, but hello, this is the new world!

CB: One of the things that we've been working on really carefully at Coca-Cola European Partners is having an inclusive culture. The reason we do that is because you need to have an environment where you get the best out of people who've got different life experiences? An example that’s got nothing to do with warehousing, but we've got an employee in a wheelchair who's a merchandiser in a retail store; nobody else has got that. It’s a really impressive life story and experience, but we didn’t start with that, we started by looking at how those people do their jobs – what are the kind of barriers they face? How can we make it more inclusive so that in all different parts of our work, we could have people who are in wheelchairs already? And to be fair, for example, if you're blind, you probably can't drive a fork lift truck, but I'd love to find a technology that enables people to do that. Trying to make the whole place more inclusive first, I think is critical, before you start working about how diverse is the workforce that you’ve got and what else you can do with it.

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