Read any article on automated warehouse vehicles, and it’s pretty easy to see there is a lot of hype. Although automation in automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs)—my specialty—have come a long way, they are not replacing all warehouse workers.
There is a fair amount of automation hype but automation and various technologies like AGVs impact workers. Companies that manufacture this increasingly sophisticated equipment must consider the social impacts.
AGVs are getting smarter
AGV technology has advanced since the 1950s. The state of the art is being pushed by sensor technology, such that today’s vehicles do more than simply follow a line on the floor. Technology has advanced to a point where rigid infrastructure is no longer needed to tell the vehicle where it is or understand how to get from point to point. That has advanced, and it continues to advance.
In the world of AGV and AMR, there’s a bit of bleed over between the two. AGVs path-follow exclusively, meaning—if you take it all the way back to the earliest of AGVs—they just follow a line in the floor. The newest version of AGVs, don’t do that by any stretch of the imagination, but the concept is the same: Follow some form of guide or instruction to take you from point A to point B.
AMRs, on the other hand, path-plan; they work from a blank sheet of paper and can take whichever path they determine is best to get where they need to go.
Sensor technology is at the point where the vehicles don’t necessarily need to be accurate to the millimeter range. Most are down to plus or minus 20 mm, which is quite good. AMRs are typically plus or minus 50 mm, which isn’t great, but the sensor tech is now allowing us to see where we’re going. So rather than driving to a specific, designated X and Y (and a Z in some cases) coordinate to pick a pallet—which requires a fair degree of accuracy—today’s AMR can now “see” what they want and drive up to it—no coordinates required.
Fear not… humans still needed
Several years ago, AGVs were sold exclusively on ROI, which meant that even though it was pure, horizontal transport—pick a pallet and drop a pallet—it was sold based on how many people (forklift drivers) you could displace from the workforce. AGVs were too expensive to justify otherwise. But that calculation is changing.
Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) in warehouses and distribution centers have come a long way. What does this mean for the human labor force that used to do those jobs?
Early on, companies had to accept an ROI of two to three years. Now, when you start talking multiple shifts, ROI is easily accomplished in far less time. Adding to that ROI are increased capabilities. As the sensors are updated and the ability for the onboard computers to do tasks that weren’t possible 10 years ago, AGVs can now perform all kinds of applications. We move further away from just simply replacing fork truck drivers and into cobotic applications. Robots and AGVs are part of picking solutions and integral to the rapid ecommerce intralogistics growth.
However, although AGVs and AMRs are replacing human workers for some types of jobs, we’re a long way from a computer’s ability to think through the challenges of day-to-day intralogistics operations. The jobs that will go away will be the low-hanging fruit for automation. Those are point-to-point transport of goods from the end of an aisle to the dock door, and from the dock door into the truck.
So, human pickers will be here; they’re not going anywhere in the short term. Currently, there isn’t a way to automate that function in a way that is more financially viable, particularly in the fast-moving consumer goods market, which operates on thin margins. You still need people.
Every year there’s a huge number of forklifts sold. But the number of AGVs sold is less than 1 percent of the forklifts sold (but climbing), so by no means are AGVs and AMRs taking over. Although there was resistance to this technology early on, even unions are starting to warm to the technology a little bit. Because of the labor market, they may have no choice. The current labor shortage may be causing some operations to look a little more closely at automation to fill in for the workers they can’t get.
The other side of this equation is that kids coming out of school probably don’t want to drive forklifts and might not even consider warehouse work at all. In that respect, the warehouse industry is no different than the manufacturing industry. Whether it’s driving a forklift all day or spinning lug nuts onto wheels, those jobs are giving way to automation. Instead, the interesting career work for those just out of school or for those whose jobs are being replaced by automation will be the ability to work behind a computer writing code, programming AGVs, or maybe sitting in an office driving a forklift remotely. The warehouse industry needs to be doing the same kind of public relations work as manufacturing: Today’s modern warehouse is a far cry from what it was 20 years ago.
Technology will continue to advance. Our goal should not be to just look at the ROI of replacing manual jobs with automation, but instead to look for ways to move people who had those jobs into positions that are more fulfilling, better paying, and in the long run add more value to the company and society.
John Hayes is Owner of No Risk Automation, a 2014 Supply and Demand Chain Executive Pros to Know, and a widely-respected thought leader regarding automation in the materials handling industry. www.noriskautiomation.com