The spread of COVID-19 has caused delays and roadblocks in the operations of several business sectors – either by postponement due to personnel contracting the disease or by shutting down entire operations altogether due to the strictly imposed COVID-19 regulations.
With the holiday shopping nearing its peak, a delay in warehouse operations is highly unwanted. Aside from the need for increased staffing need to manage consumer demand, there is also a need to implement strict social distancing operations. Studies show that the nearing cold season could aggravate the spread of COVID-19. New cases are 18 times higher in lower temperatures than in those with higher temperatures. The cold weather can also make the body’s immune system weaker, which may cause people to be more susceptible to the virus. The abundant challenges that plague the supply chain can cause its strain so proactive measures are not taken immediately.
During normal times, companies hire almost thrice the amount of help during the holidays to compensate for the employee leaves, sick days, and now they have to consider COVID-19 restrictions as well. The many issues that have been arising due to the highly irregular times being experienced globally due to the pandemic have led to companies seeking automation as a solution to cater to the holiday demand in the onslaught of the pandemic.
Factories are not new to automation. Developments originate back to the late 19th century with the invention of the conveyor belt. Robots in present times now have the ability to assume the actions and thought processes of humans. The robots can direct workers where to find specific products to pick in the racks and transfer them to the loading dock, while some machines do the actual picking by themselves. More importantly, installing robots inside warehouses can reduce human contact and can effectively aid in physical distancing.
Robotics in the warehouse
Since the first inclusion of robotics in warehouse operations, innovators knew that people would have ill-conceived notions about machines if it took over people’s jobs. Due to this, they decided to optimize robotics to be implemented on tasks that would be too dangerous for human activity. Robots were then adapted to be used for risky situations such as welding, heavy machinery lifting, and industrial manufacturing.
There is a surge in robot automation in warehouses over the last decades. Engineers have been combining automated robotic technology with recent technological developments like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Three things allow robots to operate in warehouses seamlessly and independently:
- Machine learning and AI
- Warehouse Management System (WMS)
- Improved sensors and response ability
Warehouse facilities can better supply the demand because of the many advancements that have made robots easier to manipulate. Through the development of software, the optimization of tasks is made possible. These innovations will allow supply chains to function even with a decrease in manpower brought by the pandemic. With systems in place, statistical data is generated for improved productivity and lesser travel time. Collaborative robots (cobots) allow for the augmentation of the person. One example of this is the ability to carry carts that humans had to previously push by hand. Programmable carts can transport items directly to packing stations, minimizing human contact with warehouse inventory.
The robots also allow for the manipulation of items. They are able to eliminate most of the walking needed to be done by humans. They can manipulate stuff from carrying full pallets to lifting a single bead.
The automation can also allow for the elimination of human work altogether inside warehouses. Humans can instead assume the responsibility of remotely overlooking the operations while robots perform the on-location duties inside the warehouse, including self-mapping and maneuvering around the facility by themselves.
The strides in sensor developments also allow for improved robots. Robots can be integrated with thermal, haptic, visual, and audial sensors to help them better perceive their surroundings. Thermal sensors can determine the surrounding temperature on a surface. Haptic sensors allow robots to recognize touch. The data gathered from these sensors, combined with AI and machine learning, allow robots to formulate decisions.
Warehouse Management System (WMS) allows information to be transmitted smoothly from the sales channels up until order fulfillment, then to packing and shipping.
In the next five to 10 years, robots can troubleshoot problems, manage machinery, and generate creative solutions for moving inventory and stocking. Warehouses will be able to function as a server, with the machines themselves doing all the movement.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced the development of robotic automation to be sped up, with many warehouses needing to halt operations when a COVID-19 contraction occurs among the staff.
Despite the existence of “Lights-out” warehouses where humans are absent, the costs for its implementation are extremely high and are only suitable for places where human labor is scarce or especially expensive, so the total elimination of human labor inside warehouses is still far-fetched at this moment. However, from a short-term perspective, adding robots is a great solution to remedy the staff shortage caused by the pandemic in light of the looming holiday season.
Although adding robots in the supply chain in light of the coronavirus, there are some long-term societal repercussions should stakeholders decide to fully transition their operations to automate the entire process. The accelerated developments of robotics inside warehouses will lead to an increase in unemployment. Technology experts claim that warehouse facilities that procure automated technology are less likely to hire for a role that can be performed by a robot or software.
Automated technology is expensive to integrate at that start. However, it will be more cost-effective once systems are in place in the warehouse and it is up and running with the automated software as opposed to facilities that rely on human staff.
Aside from societal concerns, an oversight in the implementation of warehouse automation may have dire financial consequences. It is a must to plan ahead in order to reduce the risk of potential problems. Inventory procedures should be implemented before, during, and after automation and data should be manually compared with the record from the Warehouse Management System (WMS). Errors will spread more easily due to the automated system’s fast pace if audits are not properly implemented. Time data reporting is also essential in order to take proactive solutions when certain issues arise before it develops into a more serious problem.
Alternative monitoring procedures should also be prepared as a backup in case an error is found in an automated system that will cause it to be temporarily taken offline.
What to expect in the supply chain Post-COVID-19
Even before the pandemic, warehouse automation was already well underway. The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic has hastened the need for automation and has urged stakeholders to invest more in robotic technology, despite experiencing revenue loss brought by the pandemic. Many logistics experts agree that automation will perform a huge role in the post-pandemic supply chain as warehouses adjust processes in relation to social distancing.
Compared to manual operations, robot picking is three to five times more productive because robots make fewer errors and allow for better movement on the warehouse floor that would otherwise be difficult for humans due to the social-distancing measures that need to be implemented.
Warehouse facilities can also be sanitized using robotic solutions to mitigate the threat of COVID-19. Robots can conduct chemical sprays, and ultraviolet light can be utilized by facilities for disinfection without the presence of human cleaning personnel.
Some robots are currently being deployed to avoid the spread of COVID-19. A robot dog is roaming around in a Singapore park to enforce social distancing among the residents in place of a police officer. According to Brain Corp, a company that develops software for automated floor cleaners, there is a 13% increase in the use of the cleaners compared to the previous two months. The concept of automation is attractive because it can serve as a stand-in when human workers have to stand home.
Industries have been struggling to retain warehouse workers, delivery drivers, mechanics, retail sales associates, and factory workers. The integration of automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, and digital connections are essential to attain the pace, resiliency, and efficiency needed to accommodate the complex demands of today’s markets and to keep the flow of the supply chain moving and open whether in times of normalcy or in the midst of a crisis.
In the future, it is likely that more “lights-off warehouses” will arise. Robots are projected to be further incorporated in the fulfillment process by eliminating physically-taxing and non-value added redundant labor, and by doing it more speedily and efficiently. IDC’s 2020 Supply Chain Survey mentioned that according to various respondents robotics would be very integral to their organization in the upcoming three years. Intelligent robotics will allow humans to allocate their time to focus on other areas that involve strengths exclusive to humans, such as critical thinking, fine-motor coordination, creativity, and customer engagement.