- Warehouse professionals expect planning for full automation to overtake augmentation of labor with technology in the next four to five years, according to a Zebra Technologies survey. Zebra defines augmentation as equipping workers with devices and technology, while full automation requires no human involvement. 49% of respondents say augmentation best describes their current automation approach and just 5% say the same for full automation.
- 77% of respondents think augmentation of labor with technology is the best way to introduce automation into a warehouse operation, the survey found.
- This still might not be enough clarity, though, because 41% either completely or somewhat agreed that they did not know where to start with bringing automation into a warehouse.
Mark Wheeler, the director of Supply Chain Solutions for Zebra, said the reason warehouse managers look toward automation is due to the pressure they're under as a result of the e-commerce boom.
At this point, it's no surprise consumers buy a lot online — the demands surrounding e-commerce were already apparent in Zebra's 2020 survey from three years ago, Wheeler said. However companies increasingly offer to get the orders to their final destination faster with two-day, one-day and same-day shipping. All of this has put the squeeze on the middle of the supply chain: the warehouse operator.
46% of respondents said faster delivery to the end-customer is driving the changes in the warehouses, whether it's technology upgrades or expanding the facility's footprint. And 40% said the same about the growth and increased sales experienced by their organization.
"We saw that driving the need for more facilities and for larger facilities," Wheeler told Supply Chain Dive. "And we also saw that driving the need for automation technology."
Automation technology starts not with robots and machine learning, but with technology that helps human workers do their job more effectively, the survey found. This is especially important as this survey found (and it's not the only one) labor can be hard to come by for warehousing jobs.
Levels of automation
|Augmentation||Giving human workers technology like tablets or AR glasses to help them with their job.|
|Partial automation||Using robots and other automated systems to assist human workers.|
|Full automation||No human is involved in the process.|
"In the short to medium term, it's about technology investments that are easier to learn and used to deal with the labor issues," Wheeler said.
Such technologies include tablets or other handheld computing devices. 68% of respondents said their organizations have already implemented Android devices or were planning to do so in the next year. Respondents said they expect Android technology to improve worker efficiency and minimize bottlenecks, among other expected benefits.
Labor-augmenting technology can be seen in other forms, too. DHL is expanding the use of augmented reality "vision picking" glasses after finding they have increased worker productivity by 15% among workers using them.
McKinsey agreed in a recent report a tight labor market and the surge in e-commerce is driving the demand for automation, and the advancement in technology allows for implementation. Ocado's new fully automated warehouses are one of the most advanced examples, it points out.
This story was first published in our weekly newsletter, Supply Chain Dive: Operations. Sign up here.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of Zebra Technologies.