Robots and realism: striking a balance in fulfillment operations

Retail (R)Evolution 2018 continued with a panel discussion of the field of robotics, as it relates to ecommerce fulfillment.

Wed May 16 11:19:00 EDT 2018
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Retail (R)Evolution 2018 continued with a panel discussion of the field of robotics, as it relates to ecommerce fulfillment. In the world of ecommerce, consumer demands for faster delivery along with growing labor costs have led to higher adoption of fulfillment technologies. In fact, a survey of the session attendees revealed that 76 percent are currently implementing a fulfillment automation technology.

Nick Pellegrino opened the session by joking about being a geek. He loves all things logistics. That’s geeky?! He then introduced the panel of robotics experts: David Schwebel from Swisslog, Jonathan Um from Hollar and Chris Cunnane from ARC Advisory. After my colleague stopped looking at www.hollar.com and telling me about the fifteen glass bowls she bought right then for $8, I started to really listen to what they were saying.

Automation provides scalability and flexibility

Hollar Co-Founder and COO Jonathan Um is all about the “Uberization of Automation.” He has robots from InVia Robotics in his warehouse that are on a pay-as-you-use business model. This gives Hollar the flexibility to ramp capacity up and down by adding robots as needed, rather than people. That flexibility, combined with using Newgistics’ fulfillment solutions, is already helping him make progress toward his goal that fulfillment be just 10-15 percent of the cost of the sale.

“I need speed, flexibility and cost savings,” agreed David Schwebel from Swisslog. Schwebel showed a really cool video of AutoStore, an automated storage and picking system. It looks like something my son would have built with his Connectix set when he was little. It’s smart, efficient and utilizes warehouse capacity by building up instead of out. Nick is installing one in the new Pitney Bowes SuperCenter, which will be fun to see once it’s operational.

Concerns about the changing workforce

Whenever we talk about robots, there are inevitably questions about how introducing automation might affect the workforce. Many are worried that robots will someday take all our jobs, rendering us irrelevant. Chris Cunnane from ARC Advisory sought to assuage those concerns, by adding the perspective that robots are there to assist employees, not replace them. Cunnane explained that we can use robots to increase efficiency. As companies examine their skill sets, they’ll find ways to use automation to maximize productivity.

Schwebel agreed that robots won’t be taking jobs away from employees – they’ll simply be helping them. Robots will work side-by-side with humans. And, if the human gets tired, the robot speeds up to compensate. It’s a win-win for everyone.

All this talk about robots got me thinking about how when my son was three, he dressed up as a robot for Halloween. The warehouse robots of today aren’t nearly as cute, but they sure are impressive!

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