Labor shortages and inefficiency lead many in the distribution industry to ask, “Why not just use robotic automation for my entire workforce?” As beneficial as it may seem to have an entirely robotic workforce, studies have found that a combination of humans and robotics is the best solution. Humans can take on work that requires dexterity and creativity, leaving repetitive work and heavy lifting to their robotic counterparts. Human workers are also needed to program and repair robots!
One major argument against an all-robotic workforce aside from the obvious reduction in human labor opportunities, is adaption. Automated systems are precise, which can be a double-edged sword. Robots require specific coding dependent on uniform product sizing and predictable situations to reach their maximum efficiency. Non-tolerance for non-uniformity means robots cannot adapt as quickly as their human counterparts, so humans will always be needed for exception handling in the distribution environment.
Pair the adaptability of humans with the efficiency of robots for optimal operations.
The advantage of human-robot collaboration can best be seen through job specialization. Robots are best suited for repetitive tasks or in heavy or unwieldy product movement whereas humans can specialize in more nuanced activities like problem-solving. For example, picking small or irregular items is better suited for human labor versus moving heavy pallets from the dock to storage is most suited to robotic labor. Quality control and the ability to adapt a process due to a bottleneck or equipment outage is another task where humans will be better suited than a rule-reliant robot.
Human-robot collaboration oftentimes halves the time humans alone need to complete a task and creates a symbiotic relationship between speed and versatility. Collaborative robots (cobots) are built for direct human-robot interaction and are designed to work in a shared space. In a warehouse environment, it’s becoming more common to see cobots equipped with multiple bins traveling in aisles ahead of a human worker who picks a selected item and then places it in one of the bins. These robots are programmed to reduce search time for workers and equipped with safety features to work hand-in-hand with humans.
While automation is the future of the supply chain, it doesn’t mean the end of human labor. A collaborative approach that leverages the independent strengths of humans and robots will lead to a more productive, safe and flexible distribution operation.
If you missed Part 1, you can view it here.