Robotic warehouses have great potential. Supply chain leaders across the globe scour the latest technologies and capabilities of robots. The reasoning is simple; robots offer a tireless army of workers without the hassle of managing human laborers. Unfortunately, significant obstacles to robotic warehouses still result in some companies eyeing the technology with suspicion, if not contempt. As explained by Steve Banker via Forbes, the most significant problems derive from the inability of robots to make informed decisions based on human-like observations. Supply chain leaders need to understand the primary obstacles to robotic warehouses and what they mean for the future of their companies.
Although the overall cost of robots has decreased in recent years, implementation is another story. According to inVia Robotics, robotics sit on the leading edge of innovation for warehouse management resulting in strong demand with few vendors available. Thus, companies are forced to decide between purchasing robots or continuing with traditional operations. Ready-to-launch robotic platforms are cost-prohibitive, extending the time to payback. Those that consider robotic warehouses must consider their growth rates and potential savings over a period of at least 10 years.
The rise of Amazon led to the proliferation of SKUs and increased demand for variety. For a business to achieve success, it must embrace variety in its product selection. As a result, the types of activities involved in put-away, picking, and packing lead to a demand for changing robotic capabilities. In other words, simple movements are no longer effective in moving items through a warehouse.
Meanwhile, adapting to new variables contributes to additional limitations that stem from a lack of dynamic decision making. The same adaptability leads to a loss of ingenuity in the warehouse. Robots cannot come up with solutions to issues, at least not those that would be considered out-of-the-box ideas.
Advancements in robotics allow robots to operate in a continuously shifting environment without the need to add additional layers of reprogramming. Advanced vision tools and software enable precise movements to accommodate the variety of today’s inventory.
As noted by Auptix, the fear of job losses also leads companies to avoid the idea of robotic warehouses. Robots do not necessarily stimulate growth in a company; they merely make it easier to attain growth. Applying robotics on a larger scale, i.e., implementing several robots to divert resources away from menial tasks to more value-added work that augments company growth, will naturally lend itself to jobs growth. Ultimately, people will always be necessary. They may be working in new environments.
For example, as robotics become more available and costly, the average maintenance needs for a facility will increase leading to the hiring of more maintenance professionals. Similarly, implementing robotics may lead to increased recruitment of robotics programmers, effectively increasing the time to ROI, while employing more professionals.
Failure to implement robotic warehouses does not spell doom for supply chains today. However, the advancements of robotics are driving a change in the mindset of executives. Robots are coming, and they will bridge the divide between the laborer limitations of today and the ability to scale companies for continued competition with Amazon (and other innovative supply chains) through tomorrow. Instead of merely buying into the fears, supply chain leaders should take a proactive mindset, thinking about the challenges to implementation of robotics in the warehouse and working with team members to avoid unnecessary pushback. Thus, more companies will turn to third-party experts to accurately determine implementation costs and reduce delays to ROI.
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