The Highway to Success – Enhancing the Value of the Workforce through Automation
Last year, MHI published its “Material Handling & Logistics US Roadmap 2.0”. This replaced version 1.0 which was published just three years earlier. MHI found that conditions in the global supply chain space had changed so rapidly that there was a need to update the report immediately. The purpose of MHI’s publication was to focus on four key forces: workforce, technology, consumers, and logistics infrastructure.
The Roadmap explains how these forces will impact material handling and logistics through 2030. As a senior consulting engineer for Bastian Solutions, I work with customers early in the project during the definition phase. During this phase, clients and our supply chain consulting team discuss the drivers of the project. Inevitably, the discussion will turn to issues related to labor. Workforce changes impact all projects.
Labor Availability - The national unemployment rate in October 2017 was 4.1%. This represents the lowest unemployment rate in the U.S. since 2000. Anecdotally, we learn the following about the workforce throughout the country:
- The demand for labor exceeds the supply.
- The long term, permanent employees have work habits and characteristics that are difficult to replace. Their predictability, reliability, and work ethic are not often replicated in the temporary workforce.
Wage Pressures - Wage inflation is an unknown, but it is certainly a risk that Supply Chain Management is always considering. One recent example is a new wage law which was passed in California. In 2016, a new minimum wage law went into effect that increases worker wages by 50% by the year 2022. Since that law passed, customers with order fulfillment centers in the Inland Empire have been pursuing opportunities to automate and minimize manual material handling tasks wherever possible. Companies will continue to aggressively pursue automation under this type of pending labor cost increase.
Automation’s Role with the Worker
Visionaries state that automation is going to play a key role in the future of the global supply chain. MHI’s Roadmap 2.0 refers to this phenomenon as “Technology Interfacing with Humans”. Bastian Solutions is playing a significant role in developing, innovating, and integrating leading edge technologies in ways to make the job of a warehouse worker easier, more reliable, and more productive. Roadmap 2.0 suggests considering the leasing and replacement of systems every five years to maintain cutting-edge technology.
Collaborative Robots Our robotics division has started developing and evaluating solutions that take advantage of the best features of both robots and humans for collaborative robotic cells. Exoskeletal lifting devices are being developed that will help people with back injuries lift materials. They also help people lift objects properly to avoid injuries altogether. Improving worker health and safety improves productivity and workplace satisfaction. We recently completed a two-part series on cobots, which you can read here:
Goods-to-Person Systems Goods-to-person shuttle systems are another technology allowing order fulfillment centers to improve productivity, reduce labor costs, and improve operator ergonomics. Instead of workers walking miles through a facility, goods are brought directly to them to fulfill each order. One of our customers, PUMA North America, was able to handle 2-3 times more orders and combine two facilities into one with the use of the AutoStore robotic goods-to-person system.
These technologies interface with humans in ways to enhance worker performance. Some of these technologies will advance in the future to the point where humans will be replaced, but the business case to be considered between automation versus the workforce will be continuously evaluated. The expectations will be that the future workforce will be educated and trained to design, program, monitor, and repair the technology of the future. Ideally, the combination of automation and workforce functioning in concert provides optimal benefits for everyone.
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