Industrial N Illinois

The robot uprising: Warehouses to intensify automation efforts

The robot uprising: Warehouses to intensify automation efforts,ph1

Staying competitive in the on-demand economy is difficult enough, and labor shortages only exacerbate this pressure. As e-commerce companies look for the next edge, most are eager to install more automated processes into their warehouses in the next five years—even if they are unsure of how to go about that.

Lincolnshire, Illinois-based Zebra Technologies Corporation conducted a 2024 Warehousing Vision Study, analyzing IT and operations decision makers’ strategies—both those now in place and those they expect to implement—for modernizing their warehouses, distribution centers and fulfillment centers.

The study probed the forward-thinking fulfillment strategies of 1,403 IT and operational decision makers in the manufacturing, transportation, logistics, retail, post and parcel delivery and wholesale distribution markets. The results found that these companies plan to focus on both automation and worker augmentation solutions over the next five years.

More than three-quarters (77 percent) of respondents agree that augmenting workers with technology is the best way to introduce automation in the warehouse. However, only 35 percent have a clear understanding of how or where to start automating.

Labor recruitment and/or labor efficiency and productivity was a noted challenge for 60 percent of organizations, with 63 percent of respondents focusing on individual or team productivity outcomes. Despite the labor shortages impacting the industry, the role of e-commerce in the overall economy is only expected to grow.

“IT and operations decision makers are prepared to meet this heightened demand over the next five years by taking an incremental approach to modernizing their warehouse operations,” said Mark Wheeler, Zebra Technologies’ director of supply chain solutions, “in which they will first work to improve individual and team productivity, while achieving workflow conformity.

The most anticipated operational challenge over the next five years, according to 61 percent of respondents, is IT/technology utilization. In particular, these decision makers desire long-term outcome for increased asset visibility, real-time guidance and data-driven performance.

The added technology will enhance worker performance rather than replace employees, the findings suggest. Most decision makers believe human interaction is part of their optimal operational balance and plan to enable partial automation or labor augmentation with technology in the warehouse. 39 percent plan to implement partial automation (some human involvement) and 34 percent prefer augmentation (equipping workers with devices).

“By 2024, leaders will shift their focus to the integration of more holistic solutions to build data-powered environments that balance labor and automation in the warehouse, ultimately empowering front-line workers with a performance edge to lead the way,” Wheeler said.

With expectations that capacity utilization will remain a challenge, the vast majority of respondents (87 percent) are currently in the process of or planning to expand the size of their warehouses by 2024; 82 percent anticipate an increase in the number of warehouses during this time frame.

As warehouses expand, so will the volume of stock-keeping units (SKUs) and the speed at which items need to be shipped. The majority of decision makers will seek increased visibility and productivity by implementing more robust returns management operations, task interleaving, value-added services and third-party logistics. Almost half of surveyed respondents cited faster delivery to end-customers as the primary factor driving their warehouse growth plans.