Robot-human Coordination Could Unlock Supply Chain Innovation

Robert Brice
Wed, Jun 6, 2018
Strategic automation strategies can unlock human potential in the warehouse.
Strategic automation strategies can unlock human potential in the warehouse.

Warehouse automation is creating a situation in which organizations must develop strategies to ensure humans and robots can work together.

In its simplest form, automation can take the shape of mobile barcode scanners - solutions that automate the process of data entry by letting users scan a code once and automatically have that data shared with relevant software systems. Other methods for automation, such as drones and picking robots, are lurking on the horizon.

Check out our white paper, "Warehouse Automation Trends" to see where the market is heading.

The supply chain sector currently resides at a crossroads. Entry-level automation solutions are becoming accessible for even smaller organizations, delivering value that can justify the initial costs of investing in new technology. At the same time, state-of-the-art robotics solutions have advanced to the point that they can be used for a wide range of tasks in larger warehouses where companies can afford the initial cost of investment.

"Warehouse automation is creating a situation in which organizations must develop strategies to ensure humans and robots can work together."

With such a wide range of warehouse automation solutions available in the market, many businesses face a difficult turning point. It is imperative to begin moving into automation quickly to ensure you will be ready as cutting-edge solutions become accessible to your organization. To get started, it is vital to first understand the state of the supply chain automation sector and consider how overarching trends impact your operations.

Where Does the Robotics Sector Stand?

Automating the supply chain is possible only with two key advances in place: data integration across lines of business so machines can interact with the environment around them and robots sophisticated enough to perform subtle tasks, such as picking up objects of a variety of sizes and shapes.

Data integration tools are already available on the market, but not all businesses have the solutions they need to gather information in diverse locations. Mobile data collection solutions stand out as crucial options here, as they can combine with internet-of-things (IoT) devices to provide end-to-end data gathering functionality.

On the robotics end, some emerging technologies are ready for use in the warehouse, but most robots equipped for real-world use are designed for highly specific tasks.

With these dynamics in mind, it is important to consider where the low-hanging fruit exists in warehouse automation. A Deloitte study that predicted autonomous robot use to rise substantially moving forward explained that most initial robotics investments will focus on tasks that don't necessarily make sense for human workers. In particular, these are low-value procedures or operations that could be classified as dangerous or risky.

As increased robotics use continues in the next five years, organizations need to think about how they can get bots and humans to work together, Deloitte's study found. Automation can deliver a variety of key benefits across the supply chain, including improved safety, reduced error and the flexibility to allow human workers to perform higher-value tasks. This last point could be among the most important benefits of warehouse automation, and it was emphasized in a recent NPR report.

Robotic automotive production line.Robots are transforming manufacturing.

Aligning Operations Between Humans and Robots

According to a study from NPR and Marist, many workers are not worried about losing their jobs to automation even though pundits typically are concerned about the possibility. After exploring operations in warehouse environments, NPR came away with a potential explanation for the discrepancy: Human workers are becoming aware that there are tasks they complete that robots aren't able to handle, making them valuable to the business.

The news source pointed out that many warehouses have high-value tasks – such as a cosmetics retailer that uses specialized packaging to create an attractive asset to send to customers – that can't easily be performed by robots.

These types of strategies highlight how warehouse automation can be valuable. Using mobile data collection, IoT devices and autonomous robots can empower organizations to eliminate many of the pain points in the supply chain, freeing humans to work at their best. With this type of infrastructure in place, companies can explore new tactics to improve customer experiences or fine-tune business models in light of the shift in human resource availability.

RFgen can help organizations build a data collection and integration basis for an automated warehouse environment. By streamlining data gathering, our solutions help companies delve into automation and get more value from their human employees.

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