Image of a Warehouse worker on a tablet and working with machinery

Automation of Warehouse Jobs: Our Friend or Foe?

Last year we ran a series of blogs which looked at the future of work for warehouse jobs as automation becomes more prevalent. A major concern was that automation could result in the loss of Warehouse Operative jobs and the consensus was that to ensure the future of work in the industry, people in warehouse jobs would need to upskill and adapt to different roles or consider making a complete career change. In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic we now take a look at how the future of automation may have changed.

What is automation?

When we think of automation, we may have visions of robots as if they have walked out of a science fiction film and into the warehouse to take over human roles, but the reality is that automation comes in many forms: a computer system, robotics or artificial intelligence (AI). When we asked our readers, over 75% had seen automation used in the warehouse environment, including things such as booking systems, stock management, stock picking, labelling and packing.  

What effect has COVID-19 had on automation in the warehouse?

In Rise of the Robots, we could not have predicted quite what this might mean in light of the situation warehouse jobs are facing this year, but it is interesting to see now how automation can perhaps work to enhance the job of the Warehouse Operative, rather than take it away. 

Warehouses are no longer only about fulfilling large orders for retail operations. The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a huge increase in the online shopping world, resulting in smaller and more frequent orders needing to be fulfilled by warehouses. This means more details need to be adhered to when processing orders for multiple channels including retail, wholesale and individual consumers. 

The fact is, with more online sales, warehouses are becoming busier than ever and the need for speed for individual consumers can mean even more pressure. This would mean more man hours for people in warehouse jobs, but as more and more individual orders need to be met, automation is necessary to help and ensure products move through the warehouse efficiently to keep up with demand. In a world where people expect a quick turnaround on their orders, often for next day delivery, warehouses have to move into the high-tech age to keep up with fulfilment. 

At a time when warehouses had to cope with a reduced workforce due to staff members isolating and a need to keep Warehouse Operatives safe with social distancing measures, this surge in online shopping became a challenge for some sectors. Warehouse managers have had to find the balance between meeting customer demand and keeping employees safe. 

Automation does not always mean replacing workers, technology can help streamline operations in the warehouse and work alongside human operators. The use of handsets and tablets help Warehouse Operatives to improve their speed and accuracy. Wearable technology is also being used more as it eliminates the need to touch equipment and keeps the user’s hands free for picking, lifting and packing stock.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a learning tool for the warehouse industry, highlighting areas in which automation is a clear advantage, enabling those in warehouse jobs to work safely and efficiently. The recent pandemic could perhaps be used as a model to help warehousing and logistics operations prepare ahead of Brexit. This may result in further hiccups, both with consumer panic buying and slower processes within the supply chain. It is likely we will see an increase in automation sooner rather than later now that the real advantages can be seen.

Automation – our friend

Despite the increase in automation, people in warehouse jobs still need to know about basic warehouse operations in order for the warehouse industry to run smoothly. Our blog last year about The Future of Work identified some of the new roles that could emerge as a result of automation, but what is being seen now is that not only will these new positions become more important, but there is also a way forward where automation can work side by side with current Warehouse Operative job roles.

There was a strong feeling among our readers that much of the new automated technology could not run by itself and there would still be a need for some manual operation as well as support and maintenance of the equipment. Rather than moving away into other industries, people also expressed a desire to learn new skills such as IT and engineering and how to use the software required to work alongside the emerging technology in the warehouse sector. 

The positive side of automation

Automation improves efficiency and speed:

  • handling repetitive manual tasks through use of robotics increasing accuracy and speed
  • complete stock visibility throughout the supply chain
  • computerised systems accessible to everyone, meaning long-term employees or those just started out in an agency warehouse job can all be up-to-date on stock control
  • robots can work alongside Warehouse Operatives to pick products and carry loads, reducing time and improving productivity
  • being able to provide when demand is high and accurately matching supply with demand to ensure quick turnaround on orders
  • connecting multiple sales channels and courier services

Automation improves health and safety:

  • enabling social distancing measures in the workplace
  • reducing the number of touchpoints
  • moving goods on conveyors, carousels, lifts, sorters and automatic storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) all complement manual picking, aid social distancing and reduce touch points
  • robots can pick products from multiple areas and bring them to the Warehouse Operative, increasing efficiency and enabling the employee to stay in one area
  • robotics can help with reaching and lifting large, heavy items
  • automated packing machines mean less touch points
  • automation can free workers for various other jobs 

Automation – Our Foe?

The recent pandemic has suggested that automation may now happen sooner than we thought, meaning renewed concern that warehouse job roles could be taken from human operators. For those warehouse jobs that remain, Warehouse Operatives will need to change the way they work incorporating new practices to work with the new technology and learn new skills to operate and maintain the machinery and equipment.

It is therefore imperative that opportunities for retraining and upskilling are put in place. Automation in warehousing is a huge area and for those that choose to stay in the warehouse industry learning to work alongside robots, the future of work could be very exciting. 

If you are thinking of a career change, read Future of Work - Top 10 Job Roles of the Future for some ideas to get started. 

What is the future for automation in the warehouse?

Automation is necessary for any warehouse business to evolve and the current pandemic has highlighted this more than ever. This period is also enabling businesses to see what systems work and what do not work in the warehouse environment. The need to fulfil orders quickly and efficiently with minimal staff has meant that the use of spreadsheets and stand-alone software just won’t cut it - automated systems are the only way forward. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a more positive outlook for automation (which can now be seen as a means to help those in warehouse jobs work better, not take work away from them.  Automation can help protect workers, enable them to do their job better and be more efficient. 

There are many soft skills that only a human touch can provide. While in lockdown many of us have realised how much people need people. There is an inherent need amongst most of us to interact with others; to see and talk to people. Communication, critical thinking, intuition, decision making and management are all very much human skills that will always be needed to control, interpret and enhance the use of robots as we move towards a new future of work. 

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