A warehouse worker interacts with a Fetch autonomous mobile robot from Zebra
By Your Edge Blog Team | April 24, 2023

Reality Check: Why We Need More Human-Centered Automation in the Supply Chain and Service Industries

No matter how many machines you power up across your operation, you still need people at the center of your business. So, we asked several experts how you can create a more collaborative tech-assisted workforce.

In today’s age of wage inflation and labor shortages, those on the front lines of supply chains and service industries (i.e., healthcare, hospitality, and energy/utilities) are being challenged to work smarter, not harder. This means that you, as a business executive or team leader, need to ensure you’re putting the right processes in place to drive greater efficiency and giving workers the information and tools they need to perform their jobs effectively within those processes. One way to do this is via “human-centered automation.”  

When you hear the word “automation,” you may think of robots or machines taking the place of workers. This is not the case in human-centered automation. Rather than replacing workers, human-centered automation models are focused on one thing: keeping workers at the forefront of operations, allowing them to focus on tasks that increase their value to your business and leave them fulfilled.  

Tom Bianculli, our Chief Technology Officer here at Zebra, recently spoke about this new way of streamlining operations in a panel discussion at the International Economic Forum of the Americas. He explained that human-centered automation doesn’t replace what workers can do but may instead offer “a collaborative approach where robots [or other artificial intelligence (AI) technologies] take on more mundane aspects of a worker’s job, leaving workers with the ability to focus on the more rewarding projects.” The duality of such technology “allows the organization to be more effective and optimized, leaving its workers with more pride and ownership in their work.” 

Watch the full session now: 

Across supply chains, this means that rather than workers walking miles upon miles to pick, put away, count or dispose of items, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can take on this role so workers can focus on tasks that require human acumen, dexterity or strategic decision-making.

In healthcare settings, human-centered automation may be more enabled by real-time location systems that guide people to the right patient or piece of equipment or AI-based software that automates task, room or staffing assignments. It could even be something as fundamental as barcode-based medication administration that enables positive patient identification along with verification that the patient is getting the right dose of the right medication at the right time via the right route. (Yes, barcodes=automation in many cases.)

For a first responder or utility technician, human-centered automation may entail more automated dispatch and routing of the right people to the precise location of the incident, or automatically ordering replacements items at the warehouse as they’re utilized in the field. Even RFID-based inventory management of mission-critical equipment – automated check-in and check-out of tagged items as they come and go from a warehouse or station – is human-centered automation. It relieves the bottlenecks that keep people from getting out there and doing their jobs.

But don’t just take our word for it. Hear from field experts who have seen the benefits of human-centered automation firsthand: 


“In manufacturing, human centered work means orchestrating industrial automation systems in a way that supports workers by eliminating repetitive activities and/or physically stressful labor. This is to protect the mental and physical health of the employees and also create an attractive workplace to retain employees and find new ones in a competitive environment. A recent example is from a U.S.-based apparel manufacturer, Bespoke Manufacturing Company (BMC), which implemented industrial automation technologies from Zebra, such as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and fixed industrial scanning systems. This helped the organization re-orchestrate the processes in a production plant by removing repetitive manual labor and inflexible conveyor lines. Now the garments are transported automatically between the different work processes and the human workforce is utilized for higher quality jobs. In this example, human-centered automation created an opportunity to increase the factory output and, by that, the jobs could be kept in the U.S. rather than having to relocate them overseas to improve the cost structure.”

Stephan Pottel, Business Development Manager EMEA Manufacturing, Zebra



“Human-centered automation in healthcare focuses on the patient and requires an understanding of the most critical processes. We are starting to use automation to relieve the pressure on caregivers by mapping out different patient pathways, from different points of view. A good example of the use of software and technology to perform tasks with minimal human contribution is the labeling of blood samples immediately after the blood has been drawn at the bedside and in the presence of the patient.

 Accurate patient identification and proper labeling of samples are crucial to ensure patient safety. Keep in mind that if a specimen is not correctly identified, it may result in delays or misdiagnoses, missed or incorrect treatments, blood transfusion errors, etc. Automation like this eliminates many non-essential and unproductive tasks, such as frequent trips to the laboratory to access updated draw orders, redrawing samples when orders change, and sorting the label sheets and neatly matching them to the sample containers. Point-of-care labeling also enables clinical staff to focus more on patient care and less on retrieving and sorting vials and labels.

The use of a healthcare mobile device and a mobile printer, connected to the hospital electronic health record (EHR) systems and the laboratory Information system can automatically notify the phlebotomists or other caregivers of cancellations or new test requests in real time. This means that caregivers can spend more time with the patient and enhance their quality of work life.

Of course, once the fundamentals are in place, it’s important to start scaling automation more extensively. By auto-triggering restock orders or automating equipment support/asset management, we can increasingly relieve people from tasks that slow them down and weigh them down physically and mentally.”

~ Thomas Duparque, Healthcare Business Development, EMEA, Zebra

Something else to consider is that collaborative automation gives people managers greater visibility into availability and demands when assigning tasks and equipment to the right person at the right time. It also helps reduce medical errors. With real-time intelligence and tracking solutions built into mobile devices, clinicians can spend less time on manual workarounds and more time on rewarding aspects of their job like providing their patient with quality care, giving them more pride in their work.” 

~ Johnny Ong, Healthcare Practice Leader, APAC, Zebra



“Waytek, a distributor of automotive electrical components in the U.S. is a great example of a company sharpening its performance edge through human-centered automation. By replacing its conveyor system with Fetch AMRs, Waytek was able to fulfill more orders, reclaim 13% of its distribution center space for product storage, extend the life of its facility by five years, and free workers from certain manual tasks. It proves how human-centered automation can increase productivity in operations while also alleviating workers from cumbersome tasks, which is critical considering the lesson learned by retailers and their supply chain partners coming out of the pandemic: agility is key to survival.

While technology and automation can improve speed, it has its limits. Humans, on the other hand, can change roles, such as becoming drivers as many did, and then change back when required. However, in these difficult times where recruitment has become challenging and the cost of labor is increasing, it is clear that a hybrid approach makes sense.”

~Mark Thomson, Retail Industry Director, EMEA, Zebra

I agree. What I’m seeing is that retailers are increasingly looking at how they can help associates become more efficient where it matters most: taking care of customers. This can be done through utilizing any technology that reduces the menial tasks performed by associates to free them up to answer customer questions and provide service that brings customers back time and time again. An example of this is RFID, which provides real-time visibility across the whole of a retailer's supply chain, while also providing the tools that allow them to carry out tasks, such as cycle counts, more efficiently. A regular cycle count may take several hours and be very labor intensive. Utilizing RFID, associates can perform regular and more accurate cycle counts in a matter of minutes. This provides the retailers with up-to-date store inventory levels and frees up the associates to spend more time with customers.”

~ George Pepes, Manager Solutions Marketing, Zebra



“A great example of human-centered automation in the public safety sector is the use of RFID asset tracking and management by agencies such as the Nicholas Fire Department and Pasco County Fire Rescue. The use of automated location and inventory management technology drives greater efficiency, allowing front-line workers to focus on core responsibilities rather than equipment and inventory checks to remain compliant.

I’m also seeing those in the Blue Light vertical take advantage of this type of automation technology because of the challenges they face in balancing the demands of timely manual inventory checks, locating equipment and getting it on the correct vehicle, and critically ensuring equipment is checked within the correct maintenance intervals. Front-line workers are secure in the knowledge that all equipment is on board the vehicle, and there is a reduction in security risk with the transparency of location and movement of assets. They can spend more time on core responsibilities while the agency saves money thanks to the reduction in lost or misplaced equipment.”

~ Oliver Ledgard, EMEA Government Vertical Lead, Zebra



Human-centered automation is transforming the ways in which work gets done in the utilities industry. For instance, the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in detecting equipment defects and predictive asset maintenance is helping to reduce disruption to field operations. AI can digest large volumes of data rapidly, detect patterns, use logic to determine how best to treat anomalies and initiate targeted preventive intervention, which is ultimately led by people. AI-enabled predictive maintenance also allows utilities to better plan maintenance work and avoid having to disrupt planned work to address an unexpected equipment failure.

Additionally, human-centered automation helps enhance customer satisfaction in the utilities industry by helping technicians plan maintenance work during windows that are least impactful to customers. It also helps them notify customers about planned outages in advance of the maintenance work commencing. Plus, with precise knowledge of the issue and resolution, front-line workers and customer service teams can give an accurate ETR (Estimated Time of Restoring) to customers. This helps alleviate some of the pressure from workers who are reassured through technology that what they communicate to the customer is accurate.

These benefits, along with enhanced safety and decreased asset maintenance costs, are just a few examples of how automated practices in utilities are putting workers at the center of operations. With technology that delivers fast and accurate data, technicians can perform their work better and more efficiently, leaving them feeling confident and proud of the results they put out.”

~ Tomi Fadipe, Vertical Strategy Lead Utilities & Energy Global Strategy, Zebra



“Logistics and warehouse operations face many challenges. The number of orders to be processed and shipped is at a peak level and the workload is increasing amidst labor shortages and high attrition rates. This is a critical situation for logistics and warehousing companies that want to keep their business prosperous and growing.

Human-centric automation is already helping in two aspects here. One way is through AMRs, which are starting to be used more for recurring simple tasks, like moving goods from point A to B, rather than a worker pushing a  cart manually through the hub or warehouse. Instead, the worker can be assigned to more qualified tasks. Another way human-centered automation is proving beneficial is in scenarios where workers are picking goods in a warehouse. Traditionally workers push a heavy cart through the aisles of a warehouse to reach the picking destinations. Now, this model is being changed to enable a stationary picker to stay in one aisle or zone. AMRs can bring picking jobs to those workers and then guide them through the entire picking process with on-screen or verbalized instructions and pick to light technology. This is significantly reducing how many miles workers walk through the warehouse.

These examples show that the introduction of AMRs, either interacting with workers (picking,) or removing simple conveyance of goods from workers, are making the working environment a lot more friendly and satisfactory. This will ultimately lead to higher loyalty and lower attrition rates, while increasing efficiency and productivity in logistics operations.”

~ Daniel Dombach, Director, EMEA Industry Solutions, Zebra



As many institutions look to further improve branch efficiency and effectiveness, bank branches are ripe for the value of using the human-centered design approach and process automation. In today’s environment, most bank branches are currently operating at their minimum staff levels. At the same time, bank and customer expectations on branch employees are moving to higher levels than they have ever been, and, as a result, the branch employees are stretched thin. Leading banks are helping their branch employees deliver on service, sales, and regulatory expectations by digitizing branch operations’ forms and workflows, which creates a one stop shop for completion. This approach provides a common platform for all employees to see what is done as well as how it was done - all visible in real time to further reduce busy follow-up work.

Another way that leading banks are utilizing human-centered automation is by automating follow-up communication both within the branch and throughout the organization. When follow-up is required, the branches, field leaders and support staff can see the progress and communicate on issues in a way that is tracked and timed – replacing numerous manual tracking processes in place to ’help’ ensure work is done. By investing in collaborative automation, banks are seeing reduced regulatory issues, improved operating efficiency, and more engaged employees across their branch network.”

~ Pete Daugherty, Solutions Consultant, Zebra


The Takeaway?

You aren’t setting the delivery timelines for goods and services. Your customers/beneficiaries are the ones ultimately calling the shots. They’re the ones who decide whether your team moved fast enough to get them what they need: medical care, food, water, power, a new house, a new car or the electronics they need to run their own business. Your team needs to be well-positioned to respond when called upon, whether they’re fulfilling orders in a warehouse, store, or restaurant; booking a dinner reservation or securing concert tickets for a hotel guest; responding to an emergency; or installing critical utility, road or communications infrastructure in the hopes of averting a crisis as the population grows.

Don’t get so caught up in achieving “full automation” that you forget why you’re automating workflows and information flows in the first place. Automation is intended to make people’s lives or jobs easier so they can be more valuable to your customers. Its value is in keeping people front and center, not taking people out of the equation completely.


Editor’s Note:

Want to dig deeper into human-centric automation? Check out these conversations:

Best Practices, Healthcare, Warehouse and Distribution, Automation, Innovative Ideas, Retail, Hospitality, Energy and Utilities, Manufacturing, Transportation and Logistics, Field Operations, Public Sector, Banking,
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Zebra’s “Your Edge” Blog Team

The “Your Edge” Blog Team is comprised of content curators and editors from Zebra’s Global PR, Thought Leadership and Advocacy team. Our goal is to connect you with the industry experts best-versed on the issues, trends and solutions that impact your business. We will collectively deliver critical news analysis, exclusive insights on the state of your industry, and guidance on how your organization can leverage a number of different proven technology platforms and strategies to capture your edge.

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