For every R2D2 and Big Hero 6 that work doggedly to help their human counterparts better the world, there’s a HAL 9000 or Megatron set to destroy it. While it’s very unlikely that we should worry about sentient robots taking over the world, the risk of them taking people’s jobs deserves further scrutiny. After all, the technology behind automation continues to advance, as the cost of building and programming robots decreases. Perhaps it’s reasonable for humans to be concerned.
Robots that can lift, move and pack products are a vital part of supply chains, warehouses especially. But experts confirm that robots aren’t stealing jobs from willing human workers; they’re doing the jobs that humans don’t want. “Robotics are not replacing anyone, but are filling the gaps that can’t be covered with labor,” says Mike Babiak, director of supply chain technology strategy for Longbow Advantage, a provider of end-to-end warehousing solutions. “Robots tend to do the least desirable and most repetitive jobs in the supply chain.”
Babiak emphasizes that, in the vast majority of cases, robots free human employees from mundane, repetitive tasks and empower them to concentrate on core business objectives instead. This brings numerous benefits to supply chain organizations, including keeping employees safe and mentally engaged, increasing productivity, and filling job gaps.
Meanwhile, the fact that this advanced technology is in place at all is a draw for many supply chain professionals: Late last year, The Wall Street Journal’s Liz Young reported on retailers including Mondelez International and Nordstrom, which are seeing an influx of young professionals interested in “building no-touch distribution centers and factories and in online monitoring systems that eliminate the need for workers to adjust things throughout production.” Sandra MacQuillan, executive vice president and chief supply-chain officer at Mondelez, explains that these types of jobs are generally perceived as more rewarding than traditional warehouse work because they are “using your brain rather than asking you to do manual work all the time.”
In a report about the future of autonomous robots in supply chain, Deloitte agrees: “Using autonomous robots to perform repetitive, mundane manual tasks can also improve employee satisfaction as they shift to more strategic and mentally stimulating work. … As autonomous robots become more sophisticated, the setup times are decreasing, they require less supervision, and they are able to work side by side with their human counterparts. The benefits are expanding as autonomous robots become capable of working independently around the clock with more consistent levels of quality and productivity, performing tasks that humans cannot, should not, or do not want to do.”
Adopt a robot
Robotics is among ASCM’s top 10 supply chain trends of 2023. As the trend report explains, “Labor shortages, supply disruptions and demand surges are compelling organizations to tap into robotics — and, as a result, intelligent robotics are transforming supply chains.”
The MHI Annual Industry Report further supports these findings: “Robotics and automation continue that stop the list of innovations that survey respondents believe have either the potential to disrupt the industry (17%) or to create competitive advantage (39%).” The survey’s authors go on to say that supply chain leaders should use digital technologies — such as robotics and automation — to plug unfilled workforce gaps, not to replace employees’ jobs, with leaders primarily focusing on upskilling the workforce and understanding how to best use workers’ time.
The report finds that the main barrier to adoption is a lack of clear business case to justify the investment. Nearly one-third (29.2%) of those surveyed cite this as a reason their own supply chains haven’t implemented the technology. The costs associated with adopting robotic technology and training employees to use it can be steep.
In a white paper, Vanderlande, a global warehouse automation provider, explains that investing in warehouse automation is a worthwhile endeavor as it leads to operational reliability, increased productivity and reduced dependence on labor. The cost on the outset may be high. The report offers this example: Buying four robots is, on average, a $2 million investment, with an additional $75,000 per year in maintenance costs. But even with a large initial outlay, robotic-picking solutions deliver a two-year payback; yield approximately 67% savings in overall operational expenses; and can cut labor needs in half by, for instance, replacing manual labor with case-picking robots for carton palletization.
Inspire and engage employees
The talent shortage is well documented, but investments in robotics and automation are proven to attract new recruits to supply chain. Scope Recruiting, a staffing agency serving supply chain and operations, recently noted, “The industry has become increasingly complex, with technology and data analytics driving efficiency and innovation. However, the supply chain talent pool has not kept pace with these changes, resulting in a shortage of skilled professionals.”
Scope Recruiting strongly recommends that businesses interested in attracting and retaining supply chain talent focus on career-development opportunities. Most employees, including those in supply chain, want to learn more about their profession, grow in their roles and progress in their careers. “Companies can provide opportunities for training and development. This not only helps employees acquire new skills but also demonstrates the company's commitment to investing in their workforce,” the company wrote in an article for LinkedIn.
Furthermore, training employees to use robots is a booming industry itself. 3DS DELMIA, a South Korea-based software company, assists companies as they determine how robots could augment their business before they implement the technology. The company explains on its website that, by using robotic simulation before installing any new equipment, companies can design, install and ramp up robotics systems with confidence that they will perform as designed. As a result, they can reduce operational costs, increase productivity and efficiency, avoid costly mistakes, and ultimately transform their operations.
Stephane Rolland, DELMIA Robotics Roles Portfolio Director explains, “Thanks to robotic simulation, we can evaluate and implement changes to ensure a different scenario or outcome. This all helps us to plan the best protocol for the production.”
Furthermore, the ability to test out the functionality in a specific location, before committing to the technology, enables supply chain decision-makers to feel confident in their investment. But perhaps most importantly, involving employees in the process empowers them to play an active part in automation, alleviating fears and inspiring them to make the most of their robot counterparts.
Discover the countless possibilities of robotics and automation with ASCM’s Supply Chain Technology Certificate. The program explores artificial intelligence, robotics and how to apply these solutions in supply chain organizations to significantly heighten productivity.