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Go to Logistics, Operations & Supply Chain Management

The Automated Warehouse: A moral question

30th November 2017 | Gwynne Richards

What does automation mean for the human warehouse worker? Find out how your employees are affected.

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In a recent lecture on automation and technology, the question was asked about what happens to the current logistics workforce if they are replaced by advanced technology, automation and robotics. Certainly, a small percentage will be upskilled to become technicians and engineers, but what of the rest?

The Institute of Grocery Distribution’s projection to 2035 based on data from 'The future of employment' by Frey and Osbourne (2013) suggested that the following logistics jobs were at risk of being replaced by robots and outlined the percentage risk factor:

Conveyor operator 93%
Warehouse picker 85%
HGV driver 79%
LGV driver 69%
Shelf stacker 64%
Demand planner 61%
Logistics director 59%
Buyer 29%
Supply chain director 16%

The report seems to separate the physical work from the cerebral. However, with the advances in artificial intelligence, the work of the demand planner could be one of the first to go. The logistics director role being twice as likely to be replaced by technology compared to the buyer is a bit surprising – maybe the logistics director needs to upskill to become a supply chain director!

Linde’s vision of the 'logistics of the future' suggests that machines will, in effect, communicate with each other with goods organizing their own transport. This vision can also be extended to products re-ordering themselves based on sales and more accurate forecasting. Perversely, they still show a requirement for truck operators!

As for the manual tasks in the warehouse, we're already seeing containers and vehicles being unloaded by robots and automated guided vehicles (AGVs), and these AGVs now being able to put pallets away in racking. The addition of vision technology to the AGVs will enable them to check the quantity and type of products delivered and flag up any discrepancies, sending evidence in real time to the supplier. Basic forklift truck operations are a definite candidate for automation.

With regard to picking, there are robots which are able to pick items from shelves, however they are still quite slow and are currently no match for human dexterity. Goods-to-person technology is certainly advancing with robots bringing shelving to a manned station, such as those provided by Kiva, Swisslog, Grey Orange and Eiratech. We also have automated storage and retrieval systems performing a similar task. All of these systems still require a human to do the final pick and placement. Packing can be automated as can labelling and stacking for despatch.

Recent advances have seen companies such as Geodis and Walmart trialling drones to undertake stock counts. However, there are potential issues with part pallet counts in the racking unless a full radio frequency identification system is introduced.

The introduction of self-driving trucks for trunking between depots can certainly be envisaged, however replacing multi-drop vehicles and parcel couriers with self-drive vehicles may well be a last mile too far at present unless it is accompanied by a human whose role it is to make the final drop-off.

Returning to the question of what happens to the people once advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have enabled companies to reduce their workforce: for HGV and LGV drivers, this change coincides with a significant shortage at present. The average age of HGV drivers in the UK is suggested to be 53, with 5 per cent of drivers being over the age of 65. The difficulty of attracting younger workers into the industry further compounds the issue, as has the vote to leave the EU causing Eastern European staff working in the logistics industry to return to their own countries.

As for non-skilled or low-skilled staff in the warehouse, this change is a more significant problem, as not all staff will be able to be retrained and retained.

We cannot stand in the way of progress, however there will be a need to support displaced staff. Some ideas include taxing companies who lay off staff when they introduce robots and getting them to invest in re-training staff for other occupations.

Other ideas include a guaranteed basic income, but it is difficult to say how sustainable this solution is likely to be given that robots and artificial intelligence are the likely future for logistics and other sectors, such as manufacturing. Machines will take over basic tasks and potentially dangerous occupations, and therefore the question does remain – what will companies and governments do with displaced workers?

References

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-tyne-30496851

Frey C and Osborne M (2013) The future of employment Oxford University, Martin School

https://gizmodo.com/robots-are-already-replacing-human-workers-at-an-alarmi-1793718198

Linde: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3P_8Qd_4_lw

About the author: Gwynne Richards has over 30 years of experience in warehouse management and logistics. As well as running his own successful logistics consultancy, he provides a number of courses on warehouse and transport management and logistics outsourcing for practitioners. He is also the co-author of The Logistics and Supply Chain Toolkit with Susan Grinstead, also published by Kogan Page. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport.

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