A warehouse worker picks items alongside Locus Robotics' robots.
By Mark Wheeler | July 31, 2019

“Co-Bots” are Working Alongside People in the Warehouse. But, Is It a Harmonious Union?

Plus, How to Know if You're Pairing Your Front-line Workers with the Right Robots (and Other Tech Tools)

eCommerce is expected to be a $4.9 trillion market by 2021. That’s a whopping 265 percent increase from 2014! No wonder warehouse operators are so eager to close the gap in their workforces. They need more people receiving, picking, packing and loading goods if they are to keep up with the rising order volume.   

The problem is that labor is increasingly difficult to find and just as difficult to retain in many markets around the world, as I mentioned in my last blog. With no relief in sight from the current labor constraints, warehouse operators need a way to augment their workforce in order to preserve and, ideally, improve productivity.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet. There is, however, a way to improve inventory management and speed up fulfillment processes without changing so much or moving so fast that you compromise quality or experience downtime: pair workers with technologies that supplement and enhance their skill sets. These include the mobile computing, printing, barcode scanning, RFID solutions that you already have deployed on the warehouse floor or loading dock today as well as more advanced augmented reality (AR), Internet of Things (IoT) and automation technologies. And, yes, this includes robotics such as co-bots, too.

Together, these technologies can work fast to help improve individual and team productivity, while achieving workflow conformity. But warehouse operators are going to have to pick up the pace on their technology investments a bit more if they want to capture their edge in the “now economy”: while 80 percent of respondents to our Warehousing Vision Study say that implementing new technology is important to stay competitive, 75 percent say that they are slow to implement new devices and technologies.

Given that over three-quarters of warehouse operators will need to be able to fulfill same-day delivery orders by 2023, they will need to continue to adapt to and re-optimize around new market requirements for customer service. The investments most apt to deliver the desired return? Technologies that augment human labor.

The Role of Robotics, RFID, Locationing Technologies and More on the Warehouse Floor

According to our latest Warehousing Vision Survey, the average time spent getting new employees up to full productivity is 4 to 6 weeks. A significant part of the on-boarding process is training and familiarizing new hires with the mobile technologies they will need to use in the course of their work. While legacy mobile tools and warehouse management system (WMS) software can be notoriously difficult to learn and use, newer devices and software are much easier to learn and use. In fact, there is a host of mobile tools, utilities and applications – handheld touch computers, rugged tablets, even printers – that can be used to automatically capture, analyze and display data in a way that’s far more familiar and intuitive for today’s workers. These devices are akin to the mobile technologies used in workers’ personal lives and can be on-boarded in a matter of hours, if not minutes. They are perhaps the best way to attain near-immediate efficiency and productivity gains.

These new tools can enable workers to see exactly what they need to pick or put away by incorporating images into the workflow. They tell workers exactly how to pack an item and sort items for shipping. They empower inventory control workers to capture accurate stock counts. And they alert workers immediately if a customer cancels an order so they can abort order fulfillment and save both the customer and their supply chain partners the hassle of managing unnecessary returns. They do all of this with a form factor and user experience that is intuitive and productive. (My colleagues and I will talk more about how to choose the right mobility solutions for your warehouse in upcoming blogs here on Your Edge)

Mobile technologies aren’t the only tools you should be giving your workers access to, though.

Augmented reality will help workers pinpoint precise inventory locations during picking actions, which improves fulfillment speed and accuracy. My colleague, Pat Narendra provided proof in his recent blog of just how easy it can be to employ AR technologies in your warehouse today, using mobile computers that are already in your workers’ hands.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) promises to create a warehouse and supply chain that are far more visible and connected than we have today. More sensors, many of which are directly connected to the cloud, will allow for execution systems that are sensing the materials, environment and workflow directly. The IIoT will allow for managers to be alerted when something is out of the ordinary and requires their attention, allowing them to manage by exception. Location will be the first and most common usage of the IIoT in supply chain applications.

Locationing technologies that use RFID tags to transmit asset-related data to and from mobile devices are critical to track and trace – equipment, assets, people and inventory.  Fortunately, the explosion of innovation in this space has resulted in the creation of real-time locationing solutions for almost any need and budget. They also improve visibility, and therefore efficiency, for nearly every worker. For example, newer passive UHF technologies can provide constant visibility of a receiving dock, a shipping dock or other operational area. And, because they can locate tags within a few feet, or track the tag through a dock door, and transmit that data to a mobile device, workers know the physical location of materials in real time. This reduces search time and provides automated, error-proofing of inbound and outbound material moves.

Speaking of automation…

Even partial automation can prove beneficial in the warehouse. That is why I was encouraged to see 61 percent of Warehousing Vision Study respondents are planning to automate or augment their workforce in some capacity over the next five years. Physical automation solutions can augment human labor in a very potent way, so it may not behoove you to “wait and see” how robotics work out for your competitors.

The technologies required for self-powered autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) have matured to the point that warehouse operators can now expect high quality and superb functionality at competitive prices. Flexible, mechanized AGVs of all shapes and sizes are equipped with a host of sensor technologies (collision avoidance, indoor navigation, computer vision, lidar and more) that allow for safe co-mingling with humans. And humans and co-bots are proving that they work better together in the warehouse.

As Zebra Ventures managing director, Tony Palcheck stressed during a June 17 panel discussion we hosted at our Chicago office with Plus One Robotics and Locus Robotics:

“Robots help people, not hurt them. [By investing in robotics companies in our Zebra Ventures portfolio] I am investing in people.”

Contrary to the belief of some, eliminating human involvement in the warehouse is not the end goal. Rather, we want – need – to enhance and augment humans’ capabilities to eliminate common mistakes that occur with an overburdened workforce. We’re trying to make their jobs easier by using technology to replace the missing headcount on the warehouse floor or loading dock. (Or remove mundane tasks from factory workers and retail store associates.)

Plus One Robotics founder Erik Nieves echoed that sentiment.

No one has been able to replicate what you have at the end of your hand,” Nieves said.

So, if you want to know if you’re putting the right technologies in the hands (by the sides, over the heads…) of your front-line workers, ask yourself these questions:

  • How does this solution bolster the output of my existing workforce so that I can better leverage my limited resources amid growing labor shortages? Does it make workers faster? More accurate? More effective? Give them greater visibility? Deliver real-time guidance? Does it off-system processes like loading and unloading? Insights that can’t be attained via the people, processes or technologies in place today?
  • Does this technology eliminate human involvement in a business process in some capacity? If so, is this change for the better? Does it eliminate a burden on that worker? Or free up non-value-add time for that worker to focus on more strategic tasks? Does it allow your workers to focus on tasks that benefit most from human intelligence and intuition? Does it offer intelligence and insight – or calculate risks – in a way not capable by humans? Or at a faster rate than humans?
  • Do your workers need multiple technologies in hand? Or can mission-critical tools be consolidated into a single device? For example, can you replace their laptop, barcode scanner and RFID reader with a single handheld mobile computer or rugged tablet?
  • Do my technology investments give my workers the boost they need to feel more effective? I’m going to talk more about the correlation between workers’ technology utilization and job satisfaction in an upcoming blog post.

Of course, these aren’t the only questions you should ask when determining how to team your workers with technologies – robotics or otherwise – but they are a good place to start.

Feel free to leave me a comment below if you’d like to talk about the right technology strategy for your warehouse. Everyone is affected by the current labor constraints in a slightly different way, and we understand that your customers’ demands and, therefore, your business needs are not going to be the same as your competitors across the street. We can help you assess the areas within your warehouse that would most benefit from further technology investments and develop an incremental rollout plan that aligns with your business resources.


Editor’s Note: Curious about whether or not you should increase your reliance on robotics right now? Hear what our panel of experts had to say during our June 17 event…

Locus Robotics CEO Rick Faulk discusses the “seismic shift” occurring right now in the warehouse…

And PlusOne Robotics CEO Erik Nieves talks about “the picking problem” that warehouses currently face…

Both of which demonstrate the need for a strategic change…

Does this mean we’ve reached an inflection point in robotics? Find out:

And, in case you missed it, Zebra Ventures recently invested in both Plus One Robotics and Locus Robotics to help advance and refine their robot-as-a-service offerings, which integrate with existing mobility, printing, RFID and locationing solutions used by the human workforce. Learn more about our motivation for such investments in this video:

Transportation and Logistics, Manufacturing, Innovative Ideas, Warehouse and Distribution, Retail, Public Sector, Automation,
Mark Wheeler
Mark Wheeler

As the Director of Supply Chain Solutions, Mark Wheeler is responsible for Zebra’s warehouse and supply chain solutions global strategy. He collaborates closely with customers’ supply chain operations teams, as well as Zebra’s product development teams and solution partners, to align emerging technology solutions with customer needs.

Mr. Wheeler has held numerous positions in supply chain execution throughout his 30-year career, including strategic consulting, automated warehouse design and build and complex systems integration. He is a frequent speaker at industry events.

Mr. Wheeler holds a bachelor of science (BS) in mechanical engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University

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