How Does Intelligent Automation Help or Hurt Me As a Warehouse, Retail or Manufacturing Worker? | Zebra Blog

Ask the Expert: Will Intelligent Automation Help or Hurt Me as a [Warehouse/Retail/Manufacturing] Worker?

With many companies struggling to recruit and retain workers, the last thing they want to do is scare away highly skilled humans. Fortunately, smart robots are here to help keep workers happy.

The Zebra SmartSight solution
by Your Edge Blog Team
June 04, 2020

Last month, Zebra’s Shawn Harris outlined the opportunity that exists around intelligent automation (IA) for organizations seeking to gain an operational edge in a highly dynamic business environment. Of course, this prompted some questions from readers about the implications of intelligent automation on workers, so we’ve asked him to address these concerns and (hopefully) ease minds…

Your Edge Blog Team: Some organizations may be hesitant to roll out intelligent automation platforms for a number of reasons: the resource burden re: platform management, perceived costs, worker or customer fears and a host of “unknowns” related to performance. This leaves many to ask, “is intelligent automation worth it?” Is a co-bot really more efficient than a human worker in a warehouse or a robotic arm really able to perform a surgery with greater precision than a human hand?

Shawn: I can tell you from the successes we’ve experienced with customers so far, that intelligent automation is well worth the investment. For example, Zebra’s SmartSight™ and the EMA50 enterprise mobile automation system can accurately identify out-of-stock inventory and optimize replenishment, price management and planogram compliance workflows so retailers can reassign an average of 65 labor hours per store per week to higher value assignments that enhance the shopper experience.

Workflows that are currently executed by workers will shift toward execution through intelligent automation. Tasks that require walking will shift to robotics solutions both in the warehouse and in stores. Tasks like getting a worker to visually inspect a product before making a decision, will shift toward computer vision and sensor technologies like RFID.  Finally, decision making tasks will shift toward machine learning and prescriptive analytics.  These technologies will be stitched together to ensure proper execution that matches or improves the productivity of workers and allowing for more time to be reallocated to help drive better customer service.

I think that there are still mixed feelings about robotics, but the truth is that workers are more receptive to co-bots and solutions such as SmartSight than some media headlines may lead you to believe.

In one major automotive manufacturer’s parts warehouse, Locus Robotics’ LocusBots connected to Zebra label printers are helping a reduce workers’ unproductive walking time by over 80% and increase productivity 2x while decreasing drudgery and improving workplace quality.  The bots travel autonomously to the locations where the items are to be picked. A nearby worker picks, scans and places the item in the tote. The robot then directs the worker to the next closest robot for their next pick, optimizing picking efficiency and minimizing unproductive walking time.

In another cockpit assembly facility, a Transportation & Logistics provider is using simple barcode scans to tell Fetch CartConnect™ robots when a rack of parts needs to be moved to the staging area and exactly where to leave it. At the staging area, a warehouse associate places the parts kit onto a fixed conveyor that moves it to the aerospace company’s assembly operation. The robots also move empty part racks back to the kitting operation in the warehouse so that workers don’t have to lug them back themselves.

I can also tell you that workers in manufacturing and warehousing environments are very grateful for new mobile-enabled intelligence tools such as the HD4000 heads-up display and FulfillmentEdge. These AR-centric technologies help to make their jobs easier and their productivity levels better.

Todd Boone actually spoke about the astronomical efficiencies that warehouse workers gained from these technologies in a recent interview.

The bottom line is that, together, humans and IA/AR solutions deliver better outcomes to customers and their employers.

Your Edge Blog Team: How much human intelligence is actually involved in the execution of an intelligent automation solution? Meaning, are intelligent automation platforms completely autonomous? Or is a certain level of human intervention required to achieve the outcomes desired from intelligent automation investments.

Shawn: We’re often asked by customers, “could a co-bot complete a workflow start to finish once it ‘learns’ via machine learning or deep learning what to do? Or will we always need someone programming the platform in some capacity on the back end, or applying the intelligence of the intelligent automation platform on the front lines.” In other words, they want to know if intelligent automation equates to full automation or if it’s more of an augmentation solution today. What we remind them is that AI and intelligent automation, though facilitating the introduction of “smart” robots into our world, still has a long way to go. It is going to take quite some time to achieve full automation in manufacturing plants, warehouses and other environments. In fact, 61% of respondents to Zebra’s latest Warehousing Vision Study indicated that by 2024 they would be relying on a combination of humans and augmentation/automation technology to conduct business.

For now, the benefits of intelligent automation will come in the form of “intelligent orchestration” as I’ve already talked about. Workflows that are currently executed by workers will shift toward execution through intelligent automation. Tasks that require walking will shift to smart robotics solutions both in the warehouse (co-bots) and in stores (EMA50). Tasks like getting a worker to visually inspect a product before making a decision, will shift toward computer vision and sensor technologies like RFID.  And decision-making tasks will shift toward machine learning and prescriptive analytics. These technologies will be stitched together to ensure proper execution that matches or improves the productivity of workers and allowing for more time to be reallocated to help drive better customer service.

In other words, intelligent automation solutions will serve as allies to workers, making sure that we know what we otherwise wouldn’t. People will rely on intelligent automation to do their jobs just as much as intelligent automation relies on people to take action on the intelligence it gathers, analyzes and shares.

Your Edge Blog Team: Do you think the ultimate goal in the long term is full automation via an ecosystem of IA, AI, AR, computer vision, sensor and analytics solutions? At least from what you’re hearing from Zebra’s customers?

Shawn: I think some organizations are striving for full automation in some parts of their operations. If you look at what’s happening in the automotive manufacturing space, particularly in Europe, you’ll see an aggressive movement to automation as part of the Industry 4.0 revolution. But it is going to be a while before we see full automation in the sense that technology completely replaces the human workforce. Only 27% of respondents to our latest Warehousing Vision Study said they plan to utilize full automation by 2024, and warehouses are one of the places where we’re seeing the highest levels of intelligent automation adoption right now.

From my perspective, this just reinforces the notion that “robots” aren’t a threat. People aren’t going to get a pink slip as their company starts to employ co-bots or EMA or other automation solutions. If anything, workers seeing these types of automation solutions come into the mix should be relieved because their jobs are going to become more meaningful. The return on investment (ROI) for autonomous intelligent automation solutions such as co-bots and SmartSight is very dependent on the subsequent human action taken.

Your Edge Blog Team: What about security? Intelligent automation platforms are essentially a form of AI, right? How can companies/customers be re-assured that the sensitive “intelligence” gathered or shared via intelligent automation is protected?

Shawn: There are several best practices that enterprises should use to secure their data while in storage, in flight, in process, and at rest – these are well established. However, given the scale and pervasiveness of intelligent automation deployments, there is a new push to leverage blockchain-based technologies to push software-defined security to the edge, allowing for permissioned access to systems at the component level. This will allow for the discrete definition of access rights between an intelligent automation system and a data provider or a consuming agent.  

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Want to learn more about intelligent automation or AI? Check out these recent discussions:

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