Will automation obliterate human workers? Do robots really do a better job? What is the sweet spot for human and machine interaction? Questions like these are being raised every day in the new retail landscape.
There is no consensus among professionals regarding the use of robotics. Although there is a lot of interest in service robots, according to a recent survey across eight industries, less than 20% have implemented robotics in their companies. Another 8% have no plans to use the technology, believing it to be inappropriate for their individual fields. About half of the respondents are considering it, but are still in R&D phases with these technologies. So, where are the robots?
WarehousingIn the warehouse, robots dramatically improve accuracy and speed. XPO plans to use 5,000 robots to achieve near-perfect inventory counts and pick rates of up to 300 units per hour, outdoing the human rate of just 50-80 per hour. With these robots in place, human workers will rarely have to lift anything heavy, and they won't have to walk as much. Sounds like gym memberships are going to increase in conjunction with robot adoption.
Walmart is building a new tech-enabled warehouse that can load pallets automatically and pick-and-pack with 40% greater efficiency. The company says they need more STEM-educated workers, so they are even opening an academy to train new workers in modern supply chain management.
Thinking outside the box, Amazon has proposed a system of blimp-ish warehouses with drones that can recharge themselves using wind turbines. Naturally, there are many details to work out, not the least of which are governmental regulations, but it sounds plausible. Did you know this e-commerce giant also patented a system for underground delivery?
Vehicles and Delivery
Thousands of people are seriously injured every year by forklifts, mostly the kind that are driven by humans. Autonomous vehicles and drones have been joining the workforce in technology-forward warehouses as engineers work to improve safety for workers.
In 2018, the @Seegrid fleet of connected self-driving vehicles for materials handling logged 1 million miles in warehouses, distribution center and factories around the country without a single personnel safety incident. Conditions are improving and the tide is turning in favor of these machines.
There are no regulations currently setup to allow drones to complete deliveries, but Congress completed a Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization bill in 2018 that would pave the way for drone-based delivery (complete with regulations and the power to “identify, seize or destroy errant drones.”)
Autonomous delivery robots use sensors, radar, GPS, and cameras to make deliveries within a small local radius. There are many factors to think about, including battery life and range, but one of the main concerns is airspace security. This is a great opportunity for companies like Airspace to create automated security systems to monitor and regulate drone activity, and remove or disable dangerous unauthorized drones.
Artificial intelligence is ideally suited to collect and crunch huge amounts of data, giving the humans more insight into their sales, inventory, target market success, engagement levels, and more.
When RFID tags first came on the scene, most companies were not sure how to use the information, but data processing systems have vastly improved as AI continues to develop. Today, RFID tags are more useful as a part of the overall automation process. Warehouse management systems and ERPs are now able to process the tags in real time, which allows these companies deep analysis and quick reaction times.
Customers hate mistakes and so do the companies they buy from-- it takes more time to receive and process a return than it does to send out an order and reverse logistics are becoming their own field. When fulfillment centers use RFID tags, they can deliver almost a 100% accuracy rate on picking orders. This is certainly impressive, but it is worth noting that some human-only fulfillment centers already have a 99.99% accuracy rate without RFID or bots. Go Humans!
Trend spotters are watching as more humans and machines work together successfully to improve business performance and working conditions for biological workers. In this new “no-collar workforce,” the increasing influence of AI, coupled with an evolving and interconnected population of robots and machines, is leading to a new industrial revolution, or, more appropriately, an industrial evolution.
“Man-machine augmentation is the sweet spot, combining human and artificial intelligence to enable better informed and more intelligent decision-making.” -Mihir Kittur, @MCMerchant
Humans have an important part in this evolution, not just as designers and engineers of the new technologies, but as coworkers and intuitive counterparts to their digital colleages. In 2019, we can expect to see an acceleration of this evolution. It is an exciting time for industry.