Collaborative robotics is coming to a DC near you

Robots that work side-by-side with humans are growing in popularity in distribution centers. ( Photo: Shutterstock )

Warehouse work ranks among the fastest growing labor sectors in America. ProLogistix reports openings for distribution center jobs increased 5.3% this year and starting wages are up 2.8% at $12.15 per hour. One of the most common positions in distribution centers servicing the ecommerce sector is the picker. The picker typically drives a lift through warehouse aisles and pulls product from the shelves to complete orders. Qualifications typically require forklift certifications and introductory warehouse management system (WMS) training. Some picker wages in California start at $18 per hour.

While the ecommerce and distribution sectors are rapidly creating jobs for blue-collar workers, the demand for faster deliveries at lower costs has created an arms race to automate DCs. Any job that involves repetitive action is an easy target for mechanical replacement. Many economists and employers wonder how long the warehouse hiring boom will last before robots prevail. In reality, we may never see completely automated DCs, but rather collaborative hybrid environments where humans and robots work in tandem. DCs will still require people, just fewer of them.

Locus Robotics Corp.  

The Wall Street Journal reports Locus Robotics Corp. raised $25 million in funding by Scale Venture Partners. Locus Robotics aims to increase productivity for ecommerce fulfillment. The product functions as a collaborative, programmable pick cart. Locus robots work as a group navigating through warehouses to help warehouse pickers pick SKUs on a planned optimized route. The robot doesn’t pick the product off the shelves. Rather, it meets a person in an aisle and that person picks the correct product and places it in the pick cart.

This particular robot only works for low level warehouse racks that humans can reach standing on the ground. Large DC racks reach up to 10 pallet positions high requiring lifts to pull product from up to 30 feet in the air. Locus robots in their current state work best for smaller distribution operations with short racks that also contain a high number of SKUs. 

A touchpad attached to the cart with a user friendly UX allows for minimal training to use the robot. A challenge with managing distribution centers is the temporary labor model. Frequent turnover of temp workers often requires daily attention to training and investment in competent supervisors. Technology that speeds up on-the-job training while improving pick efficiency will increase throughput and minimize errors. Locus advertises that its product can increase DC productivity by 3 to 5 times.

While companies like Locus Robotics Corp. market their products as collaborative technologies, they also advertently promote the reduction in overtime, health care and training costs for warehouse employees. The current state of distribution at even some of the most tech-savvy companies is still very labor intensive. However, like manufacturing, we will see a precipitous drop in the need for actual employees as more of these “collaborative” technologies are implemented in America’s distribution centers.

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