Of the many structural changes that have happened within the logistics industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, strict adherence to social distancing has become one of crucial significance. Social distancing is easier said than done within supply chains, however, as logistics workers tend to work in crowded spaces. But with isolated working conditions becoming necessary, businesses are looking to introduce a variety of measures, including staggered work schedules and greater automation.
Over the past decade, warehouses have inched toward automating operations, which is in line with the idea of social distancing in the workplace. FreightWaves spoke with Jeff Cashman, COO of GreyOrange, to understand how warehouse robots can help fundamentally alter the way inventories are handled in the future.
“When you talk of touchless logistics, the key differentiation is when robotics gets integrated with the software. For touchless logistics to happen, the robot needs to understand where an inventory is located and handle it at any point in time. And the system should also be able to interact and work with the warehouse associates in real time,” said Cashman. “There is a significant value proposition here as robots help improve social distancing at the warehouse.”
By increasing the number of robots working in a warehouse, stakeholders can reduce human workers and also effectively distance them during their shifts. Cashman explained that robots could also run inventories with high precision and efficiency, while minimizing touchpoints for a shipment.
GreyOrange has customers that have installed the company’s robots across large warehouses, with some running over 300 robots within one picking facility. Cashman explained that the insights gleaned from those customers show that software-integrated robots make workers more efficient.
“I think a robot plus a warehouse associate creates a one-plus-one-equals-three effect because of the efficiency that we’re collectively getting from the robots and the associates. The learning, confidence and technology understanding that the associates gain during this interaction is really making a difference,” said Cashman.
The post-COVID world would be sensitized to not put hundreds of workers together into a distribution center. That said, the growing trend of collaboration with robots would make warehouse workers more technology-inclined, which Cashman believes would help build the next generation of warehouse workers.
“Twenty years ago, it was a time when people started leveraging scanners over paper. Back then, that was how warehouse associates gained technology learnings to differentiate themselves from the rest. Now, it is about collaborating with robots. It’s always going to be about driving efficiency, and now it is also about creating a safe environment,” said Cashman.
One of the clear indicators of the pandemic’s impact is the spike in e-commerce volumes, as more and more people have switched to buying their products online rather than getting them at a retail store. This trend is widely expected to stay even after the pandemic, which would further strengthen the case of automating warehouses.
“The future would be about flexibility, adaptability and scalability for fulfillment centers. One day, they’d be looking to go omnichannel, and the next day, they’d want to depend solely on e-commerce. This needs a system that has software integrated into it and acts intelligent, while collaborating with associates in real time,” said Cashman.