Robot warehouse

Are Robots the Future of Warehousing?

Categories: Warehouse.

In the past decade fulfillment warehouses have increased the use of robotic technology to keep pace with major e-commerce growth.  Amazon, who has had incredible success with their Kiva robots, continues to increase their investment in automated technology and shows no signs of slowing down.

Given the current trends, it would be easy to think that an increased reliance on robotic technology will make for a more productive and successful fulfillment warehouse.  The situation, however, is far more nuanced and requires integration of an existing human workforce with that of emerging robotic technology.

Human Growth Keeping Pace

There’s no doubt that the use of robots in warehouses is on the rise, largely due to their ability to make physically demanding tasks easier and safer to complete.  A recent study of the use of robots in warehouses by ARC Advisory Group even predicted that, “The warehouse automation market will see significant growth over the five-year forecast period.”

And while this prediction might bear out in five years, it does not mean that the robots will replace the human workforce.  Again, Amazon sets the robot/human integration trend by pairing 30,000 robots with a 230,000 person warehouse staff.  The company’s reliance on human motor skills and analysis is what makes their fulfillment centers so efficient, so much so that they hope to hire  over 1,000 employees at a single state-of-the-art fulfillment center in Kent, Wash.

As Amazon proves, there’s no shortage of work for human employees, even in the most high-tech facilities. Robotic technology, when working in tandem with human ingenuity and skill sets, create a system far more powerful and efficient than robots alone.

A Long Road Ahead

Robots are limited by their programming and can only perform what they have been assigned.  This is why the human element is so valuable.  A human’s ability to adapt and correct for changes is why companies like Amazon keep such a large warehouse staff.  An individual’s intelligence will beat out a robots’ limited programming every time.

Amazon’s bet on their human workforce has even been backed up by science.  According to Emanuel Todorov, a robotics researcher at the University of Washington, “Once you get into more unstructured environments, involving objects with different shape and size and material properties, as well as unpredictable spatial arrangements of multiple objects, it is still cheaper to hire humans (even in the U.S.) than to develop customized robotic solutions.”

Another large tech company also seems to agree with Amazon’s belief in a human workforce.  Just last month, Google put their recently acquired robotics company Boston Dynamics up for sale and began transitioning themselves out of the field. Experts believe this shift was due in a large part to the researcher failing to develop useful robotic solutions within a reasonable timeframe. As Amazon has shown, robots may be making fulfillment faster, but only when paired with human intelligence and integrated into a broader modern warehouse system.

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