This post was contributed by Steve Shaheen, CEO, DTG, a Zebra Premier Independent Software Vendor (ISV) Partner.
Standing inside a massive, state-of-the art distribution center today can feel like something out of a science fiction novel, with robotic handling systems moving products to multiple locations, automatic sorting systems parsing out inventory and software and AI managing every aspect of operations.
The “dark warehouse,” which has been idealized for years, is now becoming reality.
Should we be worried?
I mean, the term “dark warehouse” was originally used to reinforce the fact that – thanks to automated machines – humans would not be needed in the warehouse and subsequently there would not be a need to light the way for workers. Are today’s labor constraints just a temporary issue? Do you just need to bide your time until you can get enough machines in place to render today’s intense hiring and retention efforts unnecessary?
As with many futuristic ideas, reality is a little less stark. The sun is setting on dark warehouses, at least as we once knew them. That’s because a fully automated and autonomous site is impractical. Who’s going to make sure the machines are operating properly? Who’s going to come up with creative ideas when the unexpected happens, or make the call when a change in the operating model is warranted?
According to Matthew Johnson-Roberson, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, in a Wall Street Journal article, ”there isn’t one single robot that’s so intelligent and so versatile that it’s like a human worker.”
As such, I cannot envision a world in which humans will be completely left out in the dark, so to speak. Less human intervention may be required to complete operations. Yet, human intervention will remain necessary, even in dark warehouses.
Today, AI and robots are only as good as the data they’re trained on. If a barcode is torn or faded and unreadable, or a product is missing from its typical location, a robot can be helpless. Despite the rise of generative AI capable of developing software code, producing training manuals in seconds or predicting shipping challenges, human logic is not yet replaceable. Yes, there are adaptive AI models that can see things that humans can’t and, to a certain extent, make business decisions on behalf of people. However, even their point of view is limited to the information they can access.
That’s why robots and other AI technologies will work alongside workers for the foreseeable future.
Of course, I realize a collaborative human-machine operation may still seem far-fetched. Most warehouse operators feel they are not yet in a position to roll out robots or other AI assistants. Yet, these warehouse operators are relying on digital tools -- warehouse management systems (WMS), laptops, handheld mobile computers, wearables, barcode scanners, RFID readers and other electronic devices – to boost productivity, accuracy, and speed. And these tools are already facilitating automation of certain tasks and decisions. Barcode scanners and RFID readers, for example, are automated data capture technologies. So, it’s not so far-fetched to say that every warehouse operator will soon be automating workflows to augment the workforce. It’s still humans driving the bus (or the mobile workstations), but they are being told exactly how to drive the bus and, in some cases, able to either take their foot off the gas a bit or put the pedal to the metal without introducing more risk into the operation.
I recently read a Zebra Technologies study which I found fascinating when it comes to learning about warehouse operators’ automation plans. According to the study, 68% of decision-makers plan to either partially or fully augment human labor with technology in the warehouse in the next five years, with automation efforts motivated most significantly (57%) by the desire to increase worker efficiency and productivity.
It seems that most firms have already taken the steps to leverage the WMS and other software to boost efficiency and productivity in the warehouse and across the supply chain, yet many are still requiring workers to traverse long, wide, and often dangerous sites to access them via fixed workstations.
If you’re a warehouse operator or 3PL service provider, you need to first take a long hard look at your operations and find ways to boost efficiency, productivity and safety using the most accessible digital tools available today. When you do, you will likely realize how motion waste occurs throughout each shift, as workers travel to not only fixed workstations, but also to printers, or charging stations to power their devices. While you may be well on your way to leveraging a WMS and other software systems to maintain a two-information flow across your operation, the next step is mobilizing the devices workers at the edge need to access those systems. Bringing devices, such as laptops, tablets, barcode scanners, RFID readers, printers or handheld devices to the point of task accomplishes all of the three goals: efficiency, productivity and safety, while minimizing risk. In fact, over 80% of warehouse associates say they feel more valued when their employer provides technology tools and automation to help them do their work. Considering how much pressure you are probably under to improve performance amidst a growing number of headwinds, it sounds like efforts to automate more processes would be welcomed by most, if not all, your human stakeholders. People will appreciate the help machines can provide.
In Other Words
Industrial markets have come a long way from manual processes in the warehouse, and many of your competitors are well on their way to leveraging the power of automation and technology to operate more productively and efficiently to keep pace with ever-increasing demands. Yet, while we’re on our collective way to the metaphoric dark warehouse, it’s important to shed light on how automation can augment and support the work of humans.
Check out the DTG website to learn more about how leading 3PLs are more easily bridging the gap between human workers and automation, and check out Zebra’s latest Warehousing Vision Study to learn more about what your competitors are doing and why – as well as what your workers want you do to in your warehouse.
Steve Shaheen is CEO and co-founder of DTG, the leading provider of purpose-built power systems and mobile workstations that deliver mobilized productivity to companies in warehousing and 3PL, manufacturing, hospitality and food services, as well as other markets.