Automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence are making headlines lately, as technological advances push all three forward. And in material handling, the need for labor and timely deliveries is driving interest, according to some industry experts.
Labor needs and warehouse evolution
At Tecsys Inc., Guy Courtin has seen first-hand the desire to bring automation into the fold of material handling facilities over the past two to three years. “It runs the gamut from basic point-to-point solutions to more complex picking solutions and robotic arms,” said Courtin, vice president of industry and advanced technology at Tecsys, a global provider of supply chain solutions.
Having worked in supply chains for two decades, Courtin has seen automation and artificial intelligence evolve and is witness to how the development fits with current
trends. “The ground certainly is shifting. The trend has been labor. Labor is still a massive issue,” he said. The changing role of the warehouse is also a factor, according to Courtin. “Warehouses used to be pass-throughs,” he said, noting how warehouses are now needed as storage sites, shipping facilities, and sites for taking back returns.
“It has forced warehouses to say, “I have to find labor,” said Courtin, noting how some are now exploring where automation can fill those needs. Courtin said the pandemic was a catalyst for some of the changes. “Especially in the warehouse,” he said, noting how broader trends are at play, too. Courtin has studied labor trends by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and noted the cyclical nature of those trends. Now, as Baby Boomers retire and the next generation displays less interest in certain jobs, like warehouse work or transportation, the need for labor has become acute.
At Yale Lift Truck Technologies, Nic Temple agreed. “Global labor trends make the challenge of finding and retaining warehouse workers more intense each year. Warehouses are already plagued by high turnover – nearly 50 percent in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – and the global workforce shortage is expected to reach 85 million by 2030,” said Temple, director of technology solutions.
At Tecsys, Courtin noted that automation could not only fill labor gaps and supplement existing the workforce but can be a point of enthusiasm for potential workers. “You’re interfacing with a touch screen. It’s cool, interesting technology,” Courtin said. Technology in use in particular, Courtin finds the development by robotic vendors of interest. “The robotic picking arms, the technology behind it is really fascinating,” he said, adding that return on investment can be a stumbling block to implementation.
Drone possibilities are also notable, according to Courtin. “I’ve seen some companies starting to leverage drones and do cycle counting,” he said, noting the advantages of the technology. “Drones are non-intrusive. It’s quiet. You and I could be working while the drone is counting. We’re seeing it also on the consumer side,” he said, noting robotics in grocery stores compiling inventory data. “You can start imagining a lot of different applications,” Courtin said.
At Yale Lift Truck Technologies, one of the latest technological developments is an operator assist system called Yale Reliant (TM), according to Temple. The system “uses multiple detection technologies to monitor the surrounding environment and the status of the lift truck and load. It can provide warnings and assist with operator awareness by proactively reducing truck performance,” Temple said.
“For example, it can reduce travel speed if it detects something in the monitored area, such as obstacles, other trucks, or pedestrians,” he said. Yale has deployed over 2,500 units with Yale Reliant technology, as well as 450 commercially accepted robotic lift trucks, according to Temple. “This technology is proven to work in real-world applications as part of warehouses with varying levels of automation, including alongside manual equipment and automated systems like conveyors, sorters, and other technology,” he said.
Early days, high interest
Still, some perceive technological advances warily, according to Courtin, who has encountered the view that robots are bad and human workers good. He sees the picture as more complex. While in the long term, he thinks the advantages automation and robotics can provide is good, Courtin stressed that the entire warehouse operation needs to be considered when making updates.
If automation is helping move pallets more efficiently, how will this affect the loads at the docks and other parts of the chain? Courtin asked. “The hurdle is, are you changing parts of the system without thinking? How do I integrate better with other pieces of the warehouse?” he said. Overall, he believes interest in the adoption of automation will continue. “I think the trend line is the same,” said Courtin, who dubbed it “early days” in the industry use of automation. “Automation in a warehouse is still a small percentage,” he said, envisioning development happening in increments rather than a big bang.
But interest is high.
“Maybe in the next five years there will be a push from consumers, ‘I want this automation,” Courtin said. “We as consumers are going to start expecting orders to come when we want them.”
At Yale Lift Truck Technologies, Temple agreed, noting the impact of the consolidation of consumer markets as well. “Global economic trends are making a transformative impact on the warehouse market.
By 2030, 60 percent of the work population will live in urban areas, according to Statistics Times. From some historical perspective, that figure was less than 30 percent in 1950. Also, by 2030, e-commerce will account for 30 percent of global retail sales according to some estimates. That’s up from 20 percent just 10 years prior,” Temple said.
So, for warehouses, technology isn’t “just a shiny object,” he said. “Operations increasingly depend on it to drive success,” Temple said. “Operations can’t afford to wait – today’s warehouses need technology seamlessly integrated in lift truck solutions to advance their performance and competitive position.”
At the core of artificial intelligence is information, which Courtin sees as offering great potential. “If we put robotics in a warehouse, now I am producing mountains of information,” he said, describing how the information could be used for tasks like helping map picks.
At AutoScheduler.AI, Keith Moore discussed the recent breakthroughs in AI technology. AI is now advanced enough to do things like pass a medical exam on paper, said Moore, but he stressed that it is not at a juncture where it could run a whole warehouse. “It’s not designed to optimize a warehouse,” he said.
AutoScheduler is a warehouse resource planning and optimization platform that dynamically orchestrates all activities on top of an existing warehouse management system, according to the website.
Still, overall, AI advancements offer opportunities, Moore said. “I can build tools where anybody who needs to understand warehousing and automation can call and AI can get you the exact answer,” he said, adding that AI offers a tool for combating the glut of information available in the current age.
But within operations, there are also still much simpler solutions currently available, Moore said. “I can do something simpler and show here how it is going to play out,” he said, noting that with current AI, the tech is running “a few levels deeper.” And AI has not overcome all challenges, according to Moore. “It’s getting better, it’s not perfect. It’s not a replacement for a person. It doesn’t necessarily have emotion,” he said, noting that in the hypothetical scenario of the technology helping an individual pass the medical exam, some areas would still be lacking. “I can look up any surgery, that doesn’t make me a doctor,” Moore said.
Warehousing requirements are extremely niche, according to Moore, but there are some areas where AI can be employed. He noted the busy work that could be avoided through some automated communication by a chat GPT. It is a concept of efficiency employed through the tools AutoScheduler currently offers.
“How do I plan this site, the hours, people, equipment,” Moore said. “We have sites where we went from planners having thousands of touches in the system to now, they might touch it five to ten times a day.” Moore acknowledged the learning curve of all the latest advancements. Imagine sitting in a warehouse and seeing an automated system driving the equipment for the first time, he said. “The first trip, wherever you’re going, it’s going to be nerve-wracking.
After a while people start to get comfortable,” Moore said. Overall, he sees the latest advances in technology as a positive step forward. “All of these shifts in artificial intelligence and normalization of communication with machines is fantastic,” he said, pointing to the targeted areas where the technology can be employed. “It helps us,” Moore said.
About the Author:
Eileen Mozinski Schmidt is a freelance writer and journalist based in the Greater Milwaukee area. She has written for print and online publications for the past 13 years. Email Networkeditorial@MHNetwork.com or visit eileenmozinskischmidt.wordpress.com to contact Eileen. If your company would like to be featured, email Networkeditorial@MHNetwork.com