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Warehouse managers have been facing mounting pressure to accelerate day-to-day operations while keeping costs down and reducing error rates. This has contributed to a rapid uptick in the warehouse automation market, but what are the implications of moving away from human-focused processes? There are some who are concerned that putting such a focus on rigid efficiency and machine-based operations will take away jobs and eliminate critical human factors from operations. The warehouse management industry's move toward automation makes the sector a prime example of the way automation may change society, and the results may not be what you'd expect. In fact, moving to automation may end up making the key human factor in operations more important.
A Quick Look at the Warehouse Automation Market
Establishing warehouse automation and control systems continues to be a growing movement across the warehouse sector, particularly as the growing e-commerce industry pushes organizations across a wide range of sectors to adjust to the expectations of digital consumers. A study from the ARC Advisory Group found that market revenues in the warehouse automation sector are expanding quickly and, beyond e-commerce, manufacturers and and distributors are going all in on efficiency gains as they face new demands.
All of these investments in automation aren't necessarily eliminating humans within the warehouse environment. A Quartz report discussing the way automation is changing society pointed out that online retail giant Amazon has been one of the largest drivers of warehouse automation innovation, as it has increased the number of robots used in its warehouses consistently over the course of the past few years. At the same time, Amazon has not reduced staff and has only ramped up new warehouse projects. All told, the situation here is fairly straightforward: Amazon used automation to reduce costs, creating new business. This demand has enabled Amazon to maintain its staff, not reduce it, despite its use of automation.
The news source went so far as to point to the first industrial revolution - when investments in machines led to higher-paying jobs as factory workers were trained to repair and support the machines. This same process could unfold as automation takes hold in modern society.
In action, automation is often creating opportunities for innovation, not simply eliminating jobs, giving businesses more growth potential. But beyond the nitty-gritty day-to-day gains, three big-picture benefits of warehouse automation are:
1. Improved Work Environments
Many longstanding warehouse processes require a great deal of slow, manual data entry as workers perform cycle counts, gather assets for different projects and optimize storage layouts. The result is many boring, tedious and error-prone operations. Throw in personal risk when it comes to moving heavy objects or handling potentially harmful materials, and the warehouse can be a difficult, dangerous place to work. This is changing as more organizations implement automation technologies.
Whether you are considering investing in robots to pick items from shelves or use data automation and integration tools to coordinate operations across departments, process optimization and automation can make your warehouse a better place to work. This creates an operational climate that is not only better for your employees, but also lets you put your workers to tasks that deliver more value to the business. Instead of simply sustaining day-to-day operations, employees can devote more time to special projects, providing oversight over critical initiatives and engage in more rewarding activities.
2. Greater Business Flexibility
Warehouses have historically had to deal with a great deal of rigidness as technological limitations and entrenched process models combine to make any sort of changes particularly difficult to enact. Employing automation creates a greater deal of flexibility in terms of business processes and procedures. When depending on human operations, organizations must retrain workers not only in what they must do differently, but also any technological adjustments they must make. From there, organizations must monitor users closely to ensure new practices take hold and are followed correctly.
Conversely, adjusting operations within an automated system is simply a matter of tweaking the programming code or rewriting the automation script. This isn't necessarily simple, but it is generally much easier and more quickly than making major changes has been in the past. As a result, organizations are able to better align their business and processes at any given time based on demands in the marketplace.
3. Simplified Regulatory Compliance
Everybody makes mistakes. Human users may check the wrong box on a form, forget to sign a document or simply neglect to take care of a key procedure when handling a regulatory good. A computer can run into a bug or similar problem that causes an error. However, the likelihood and frequency of those types of errors tends to be smaller. What's more, they are also generally easier to identify. This can reduce regulatory breaches, but automation's benefits don't end there.
Regulatory compliance isn't just about following best practices, it is also about proving that your organization is doing so. Having your users documenting their activities and asking managers to perform complex, manual audits, can drive processes to a crawl. Automating documentation and integrating that data with enterprise resource planning systems ensures that businesses can create regulatory reports quickly and verify their compliance.
Automation often gets attention as a technology that could replace human workers. In warehouse settings, however, the technology isn't so much displacing humans as it is empowering them to work at their best and create more value for the business.