Are Robots the Perfect Employee?

We're sitting in the middle of a perfect storm for robots in the supply chain.

E-commerce sales continue to climb, forcing retailers to pick up the pace in their fulfillment and distribution centers. But these days, it's hard to find workers to keep product moving in any kind of warehouse—e-commerce or otherwise. With U.S. unemployment at 4.1 percent as of January 2018, people aren't exactly lining up for low-paying, repetitive jobs that often require miles of foot travel per shift.

"Many businesses in the United States and worldwide are facing labor shortages," says Joel Reed, vice president of IAM Robotics in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. Baby boomers are retiring, and younger workers are less inclined to spend their work hours walking and picking.

"We are having issues with finding and retaining employees for second shift picking," confirms Gary Ritzman, project manager at Rochester Drug Cooperative (RDC), a distributor that uses two IAM robots in its New York distribution center.

Even when companies can find warehouse workers, some positions see a great deal of turnover. "They're just not good jobs," admits Matt Wicks, vice president of product development at Honeywell Intelligrated in Mason, Ohio. "They're prone to injury, and a lot of them are not in the best environments."

Robots for logistics are designed to take over the supply chain's least attractive tasks. In some cases, robotic systems do this work entirely on their own, freeing humans for more complex functions. In other instances, bots collaborate with humans. Whatever the scenario, proponents say that these automated solutions provide a big productivity boost.

Companies use robots throughout the supply chain. Manufacturing is the traditional venue, but these days, you might even see robots in retail locations. Walmart, for example, has been testing bots that roam the sales floor scanning shelves in 50 of its stores.

But many new developments focus on the warehouse. There, robotic solutions fall into at least three categories: bots that deliver product from place to place; bots that pick, insert, or otherwise manipulate items; and bots that do both.

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