March 12, 2024

Why the Human Element Still Matters in The Warehouse

Why the Human Element Still Matters in The Warehouse

The last few years have brought significant advances in warehouse automation capabilities, including robotics solutions that can theoretically handle many traditional picking and packing activities. As robotics become more prevalent and affordable, supply chain and logistics professionals have expressed numerous opinions and concerns about how warehouse robotics will impact the future of warehouse associate jobs.

However, the reality is that people aren’t going anywhere in warehouses for the foreseeable future. Warehouse employees offer numerous capabilities on the warehouse floor that robotics and artificial intelligence simply can’t. Below, we discuss how the human element is essential for warehouse operations.

The Need for Warehouse Labor

While automation has its place in many warehouses, labor remains irreplaceable. That’s not to say warehouse roles aren’t changing over time as new technologies get introduced. However, current robotics and automation solutions in the warehouse aim to create a symbiotic relationship between the technology and employees rather than replace employees altogether.

Here are some of the factors that will make warehouse labor essential for years to come:

  • Flexibility/adaptability. Automation solutions work best for streamlining repeatable tasks with minimal variables, which means robots and automation can’t adapt easily to changing operational needs. For example, a picking robot can’t load a truck or build a pallet. Meanwhile, employees can change tasks on the fly and help on the loading dock, switch from picking to packing, process returns, or whatever else is needed.
  • Cost-effectiveness. Automation is expensive and requires a significant upfront investment. Investing in massive conveyor systems or fleets of robots or cobots is often impractical for warehouses below a certain size. While some large retailers claim to have fully automated warehouses, those facilities still tend to have a large on-site workforce, and even those facilities are financially out of reach for most businesses. As a result, small- and medium-sized warehouses rely on a labor force over heavy automation.
  • Better dexterity. Robotics have come far in the last decade, but one thing they are not is delicate. Robots have trouble handling fragile items, which increases the risk of damaged goods during distribution and fulfillment. These products are best left to warehouse employees to minimize the risk of breakage.
  • Critical-thinking skills/problem-solving. Warehouse associates can reconcile inventory discrepancies, extrapolate from incomplete data or instructions, and otherwise think outside the box in the problematic situations that arise in any warehouse. Also, in the event of an equipment failure, power outage, or other emergency, employees can think on their feet and find creative solutions to whatever went wrong.

An ongoing shortage of logistics and transportation workers is a primary driver for businesses looking at technology and automation solutions for the warehouse. As such, most of the solutions logistics technology providers offer focus on enhancing existing workers rather than replacing them. Businesses primarily want technology that lets them achieve more with the staff they have.

For example, the most common warehouse robots in use today bring bins or boxes to employees who can ensure the correct item gets picked and packed. Taking over this step of the task lets the employee make the final decision about what gets packed while also reducing the common stress injuries warehouse workers experience due to excessive and repetitive walking, bending, and lifting.

It’s safe to say that robots won’t be the end of warehouse employment any time soon. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics have a long way to go before a warehouse robot could ever match the capabilities of an experienced warehouse team member.

About Phoenix Logistics

Strategic Real Estate. Applied Technology. Tailored Service. Creativity. Flexibility. These fundamentals reflect everything we do at Phoenix Logistics. We provide specialized support in locating and attaining the correct logistics solutions for every client we serve. Most logistic competitors work to win 3PL contracts, and then attempt to secure the real estate to support it. As an affiliate of giant industrial real estate firm Phoenix Investors, we can quickly secure real estate solutions across its portfolio or leverage its market and financial strength to quickly source and acquire real estate to meet our client’s need.

As Senior Vice President for Phoenix Logistics, Mr. Kriewaldt oversees the company’s day-to-day operations as well as corporate strategic development. With more than 25 years of experience in the industrial real estate and logistics industries, Mr. Kriewaldt boasts extensive expertise in real estate practices as well as third-party logistics operations, contract negotiation, and new business development. Mr. Kriewaldt proudly fosters long-lasting business relationships by putting the customer first and creating mutually-beneficial partnerships for all involved. He also holds a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Texas and a Juris Doctorate degree from Marquette University.

Frank P. Crivello is a Milwaukee-based developer and Chairman & Founder of Phoenix Investors.

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