Warehouses turn to robots to fill workforce gaps and expedite deliveries
Robots arrive in North American warehouses short of manpower.
A growing number of self-contained machines transport clothing and sports equipment down warehouse aisles, pull bins of groceries, cosmetics, and industrial parts from high piles, and hand goods over to human workers to help deliver more orders. quickly. Some logistics operators are testing forklifts that can be operated from remote locations, allowing employers in tight labor markets to tap into a geographically larger pool of workers.
The push towards automation comes as companies say they can’t hire warehouse workers fast enough to meet growing online demand for everything from furniture to frozen foods in disrupted supply chains. a pandemic. The crisis is accelerating the adoption of robots and other technologies in an industry that still relies heavily on workers pulling carts.
“It’s not about taking back your job, it’s about taking over the jobs we can’t fill,” said Kristi Montgomery, vice president of innovation, research and development for Kenco Logistics Services LLC, a third party logistics service provider based in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Kenco is deploying a fleet of autonomous robots from Locus Robotics Corp. to fill the workforce gap by helping workers fill orders online at the company’s largest e-commerce site in Jeffersonville, N.Y. Indonesia.The company is also testing autonomous tractors that tow carts loaded with pallets.
In order to save manpower and space in a distribution center for heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment, the company is installing an automated storage and retrieval system that will be brought online. this fall that uses robots to retrieve goods packed tightly together in dense rows of stacks. .
Kenco and France-based logistics service provider Geodis SA are also testing remote-controlled forklifts equipped with start-up Phantom Auto technology that drivers can operate remotely using real-time video and audio streams.
The technology allows operators to switch between vehicles at different locations based on demand, opening up these jobs to workers from various regions. It could also allow Kenco access to untapped segments of the job market, such as the physically disabled, Ms. Montgomery said.
Logistics automation companies say demand for their technology has increased during the pandemic, as companies look for ways to deal with large fluctuations in volume when workers are scarce and social distancing requirements limit l occupation of buildings.
“Robots are starting to fill this void,” said Dwight Klappich, vice president of supply chain research at Gartner Inc. The technology research company predicts demand for robotic systems that deliver goods to human workers. quadruple until 2023.
“We have benefited significantly from the second half of last year,” said Jerome Dubois, co-founder and co-managing director of robotics supplier 6 River Systems, which is owned by Shopify. Inc.
“The driving force here is not to reduce costs, but simply to meet the needs of the customer. They just can’t hire.
Growing demand for e-commerce during the coronavirus pandemic has added strains to what was already a tight labor market for logistics and distribution jobs.
U.S. warehousing and storage companies created nearly 168,000 jobs between April 2020 and April of this year, according to federal figures, an increase of 13.6%. But the sector’s wage bill contracted by 4,300 jobs from March to April, according to a preliminary report from the Ministry of Labor.
Many logistics employers say they can’t add enough staff to keep pace with high demand as the U.S. economy emerges from the pandemic.
Lack of staff drives wages up as logistics operators compete with heavyweights including Amazon.com Inc.,
who plans to hire an additional 75,000 warehouse workers this year. Logistics recruiting company ProLogistix, which works with companies such as Walmart Inc.
and Target Corp., said the average starting wage for warehouse workers was $ 16.58 an hour in April, up 8.9% from the same month in 2020.
Users say mobile robots and other logistics technologies can also increase production and efficiency, helping businesses manage sudden spikes in demand without investing millions of dollars in fixed infrastructure.
XPO Logistics Inc.
said its use of robots in warehousing operations increased its efficiency up to six times in some cases. The company plans to roughly double the number of robots in its warehouses this year.
whose plastic foam shoes are riding a wave of growing popularity, set up a pop-up e-commerce fulfillment operation during last year’s holiday sales season that used 83 mobile robots from 6 River Systems to help 55 workers. After the peak, the company now has 51 robots for 30 people. Robots nearly tripled productivity, according to Crocs, who said the shift to automation was largely driven by rapid growth in demand.
Evo, a Seattle-based sporting goods and clothing retailer that generates 70% of its business through online sales, was considering automation before the pandemic made recruiting even more difficult. The company used Locus robots to support higher order volumes last year and added units during the peak of 2020, reducing warehouse congestion and easing the pressure on labor recruitment. .
“Now, as we prepare for peak season, we won’t be as challenged to find the same number of workers that we would typically need to meet seasonal volume demands,” evo said in a statement.
Write to Jennifer Smith at [email protected]
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