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A balanced warehouse: A look at the need for automation in a labor-challenged market

Personnel and automation technology now are both a familiar presence in many warehouses. So how should warehouse leaders plan for a balanced co-existence?  For some, the answer to mapping it out starts with the topic on many minds lately.  “The number one thing is the labor shortage,” said Kelly Shattuck, automation and dynamic storage solutions corporate sales manager at Wolter Inc.

The company, originally known as Wisconsin Lift Truck, was started in 1962 by CEO and founder Otto Wolter. In the years since, operations have expanded into Illinois and beyond. “The last five to ten years, it has expanded drastically through acquisition,” said Shattuck, who said the company was renamed Wolter Inc. after growing into an operation with 600 employees across seven states.

Today, the company includes “an extensive suite of operational productivity solutions, including material handling, automation and robotics, cranes and hoists, engineered systems, storage and handling, rail car movers, power systems, workplace storage, service, parts and accessories, rentals and training,” according to the business website. Automation and robotics solutions categories at Wolter include automated vehicles, robotics, conveyors and automated handling, automated storage and retrieval systems, software and sensing, and applications by job function, according to the website.

While some associate the labor shortage with the recent pandemic, Shattuck noted broader trends. “Depending on the particular market, there’s been a shortage of welders for 30 years,” he said. “In the Midwest it’s been a common practice that when a business grows you throw a lot of people at it. We don’t have that luxury anymore.” Shattuck said he will often hear from customers with anywhere from “five or 10 all the way up to hundreds” of open positions.

“When we talk about automation, it’s not about people losing jobs,” he added. In the U.S. labor market as a whole, a recent study echoed the concept. The shortage of American workers is the result of demographic and other trends that predate the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Brookings Institute study released last spring by Katharine G. Abraham and Lea Rendell of the University of Maryland. While the study found that the labor market has “changed significantly” since the start of the pandemic, “much of the decline in the labor force participation over the past three years should have been anticipated even absent the pandemic,” the study’s authors wrote.

In warehousing, Shattuck noted that a typical question for customers is to assess not just what they’re experiencing on the shop floor but how many sales dollars have been lost because of not having enough personnel. The answers he has heard range from hundreds up to thousands “if not millions” of dollars. “It’s amazing even after fighting labor shortages for more than five years or 10 years, you still have to point it out,” Shattuck said.

For some, there has been a phenomenon since the downturn of 2007 to 2009 of people taking on multiple jobs, Shattuck added. “It’s just keep your head down and just keep working,” he said, describing the approach. For those who are adopting more automation, a second consideration after labor is safety, according to Shattuck. “Anytime you have pedestrians and manned forklifts in the same area, it’s a huge safety concern,” he said.

A third motivating factor for automating is often mandates within larger companies, according to Shattuck. For smaller companies, he said automation cost can be a factor and implementation typically focuses on the return on investment.

Another piece of the labor puzzle for companies of all sizes is an aging workforce, according to Shattuck.  “Right now, if you go into any facility, a large part of the labor force is within five to ten years of retirement,” he said, adding that there is not a large pool of workers to backfill those positions.  Shattuck said it is key to get information to younger workers about opportunities in the industry.  “If a younger person right now was thinking about what they want to do when graduating, I would tell them to go into an automation tech position,” he said. “It’s not like an engineering degree; it requires some basic knowledge of how vehicles work and some basic coding, and even those systems are getting super easy now. “It’s a huge need going forward; people who can work on automation systems.”

Overall, Shattuck encouraged companies to think expansively about how automation may be of value in warehouse needs now and in the future.  “What can be automated is based on how much imagination you have,” he said.

 About the Author:

Eileen Mozinski Schmidt is a writer and journalist based in the Greater Milwaukee area. Email  or to contact Eileen. If your company would like to be featured, email  

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