If you follow the ecommerce fulfillment and logistics space, you’ve doubtless seen many stories about automation in an ecommerce FC. It seems a new business is introducing robots every day, sometimes taking a role that would traditionally be performed by humans.
We’re at a tipping point where automation is about to be a mainstream focus of ecommerce fulfillment centers. But while automation may be a sensible investment for bigger players like Amazon, that doesn’t mean it will scale effectively to smaller operations. So, are fully automated facilities really the future, and if so, what will it look like?
An Industrial Revolution
We’ve all heard about Amazon’s work, from robots carrying products to machines that scan, box and wrap items. Amazon is also looking to blur the boundaries between humans and automation through augmented reality. Devices are being trialed to help workers find items faster, track their movements and optimize their work.
While Amazon is a major player in robotics, there are many others. Ocado, for instance, has sold its robotics technology to grocers around the world. Its fulfillment centers are heavily automated, with small robots skating across the top of pallet stacks, sorting and arranging items before sending them to pickers. It is also developing robots with fine motor skills, including one using flexible fingers that inflate with pressurized air.
Elsewhere, China’s mega corporations are also making good progress. JD.com says it has had a fully automated ecommerce FC in Shanghai since 2017, while Alibaba uses robots for 70% of the work in its facilities. The company behind JD.com is a Japanese startup, Mujin, which recently equipped Uniqlo with clothes-folding robots. Until now, tasks which requires delicate or precise manual dexterity were beyond robots, but even these barriers appear to be breaking down.
Rent a Robot
Full automation for most applications may still be a way off. An Amazon executive recently estimated it would be 10 years before the company could replace most human workers. But a ten-year timescale is nothing for many businesses. And the progress made within the last couple years, including full automation for certain regularly-shaped goods, suggests this target is achievable, if not beatable.
While robots will become cheaper as they are standardized and produced in greater numbers, they still represent a massive initial investment. As a small or medium-sized business, it may be difficult to justify this without knowing the precise impact automation will have, not to mention the costs of support and integration. However, that’s not to say that some level of automation isn’t accessible today. The concept of robotics as a service (RaaS) is already gaining ground, providing companies with robots at a variable cost.
Instead of buying them outright and having to create custom software to fit your business, robots are increasingly being leased to companies with generic software. This can then be customized by the RaaS provider or in house, honing the robots to certain basic functions such as packing orders or carrying goods. Such solutions are easily scalable and more cost effective, letting ecommerce companies trial automation and relieving them of the burden of upgrading hardware in a few years.
On some level, your ecommerce FC may never be completely automated; it will still require some level of oversight, as well as mechanics, engineers and software programmers. But the possibility that robots could replace many low-level jobs within the next couple of decades is a daunting one. How can you prepare for this switchover, not just on an economic level, but also a cultural one? Is there a risk of being left behind, or will there always be unrecognized value in humans that robots may never have?
First off, manual dexterity remains a significant barrier. While there are robots which can now fold clothing and pick up delicate items, they can only do this very slowly. They also struggle to pack these items efficiently, and cannot do two difficult tasks at once, for example, keeping a belt rolled up while also packing an item alongside it. Simulating the complex musculature of the human body and coordinating this is a job that ranks somewhere alongside decoding the human brain, and robots are unlikely to surpass humans at this for many decades to come.
However, there may still be an advantage to using robots for these tasks in many scenarios, particularly as they do not require any breaks. For businesses in affected industries, now may be the time to start exploring the possibilities of automation, and trialing existing tech on a small scale. By familiarizing both executives and workers with this technology, you can avoid any culture shock if you decide to adopt it in future. This may also inspire you to create learning pathways within your business, giving people the opportunity to upskill and train themselves to be robot mechanics, engineers or other support operatives.
Automation hasn’t reached the point where it’s a necessity, but by using RaaS, it’s already at the point where it can give most businesses a competitive advantage. While it isn’t necessary to invest in robots yet, it does seem like automation is becoming not just viable, but normalized. Companies that haven’t yet thought about automation for their ecommerce FC should consider the impact it may have and take exploratory steps to integrate it into the workflow.
James Beale is Operations Manager of Invicta Pallet Racking