Why Warehouse Automation Leads to Better Labor Conditions

Retailers have been faced with big challenges, including the emergence of smartphone shopping and the continued ecommerce boom. It is no secret that today’s ecommerce shoppers now expect to receive items quickly. Since retailers frequently offer comparable products at similar prices, speed of delivery is becoming an increasingly important factor for many holiday online shoppers.

Distribution centers now find themselves in a new roll serving as the primary connection between companies and their customers, adding additional strain on already busy facilities. Increased volume, holiday deals and shipping promotions frequently require retailers to be able to fulfill fluctuating volumes of online orders for delivery to consumers within 24-48 hours.

In addition to scheduled store deliveries of pallets and cases, retailers must factor split-case picking, item-level touches and multi-line item sortation in to their fulfillment processes to accommodate for demand fluctuations.

The effects
Order fulfillment, now even further stressed by ecommerce, involves physically taxing, repetitive movements including lifting, carrying and bending. Workers are responsible for large volumes of orders each day, and in larger warehouse facilities with traditional operations, automated sortation and/ or intra-distribution center transport, pickers may walk more than 15 miles each day. In smaller distribution centers, operators may walk up to five miles over the course of a shift.

As workers age, excessive bending and stretching can lead to higher rates of injury and associated workman’s compensation expense. In addition, fatigued workers are less efficient and more prone to error.

Seasonal workers added for the holidays can also add a strain on busy facilities. To help meet 2012 demand, Amazon alone reportedly hired 50,000 seasonal workers; this number represents more than double their non-holiday workforce. These workers need to be properly managed, trained and integrated into already bustling warehouses.

Since safe and satisfied workers are integral to maintaining a successful fulfillment center, it is crucial that retailers place a high level of importance on environmental conditions and concerns that can impact workers’ quality of life. According to a study published in the Journal of Service Research, companies that attend to employee satisfaction can improve internal morale, reduce turnover and enhance customer satisfaction.

21st century automation
New technological and ergonomic advances can help retailers improve the worker environment while meeting ecommerce demand. Automation has become more affordable and productive than ever, and companies around the globe are leveraging such technology in their warehouses to improve the distribution center work environment.

Human interface with robots is safe by design compared to the randomness of such warehouse equipment as the forklift, and systems with high-speed robots for put away and storage are designed to work in confines that are limited or even completely off-limits to workers.

With automated storage and retrieval technologies in place, operators merely insert bins into the storage cube via one or more receiving stations. Robots bring inventory to pickers for selection and take over the actual put-away work. This saves time, increases productivity and eliminates thousands of miles of walking for pickers.

In addition to accommodating high ecommerce order volumes, most inventory storage technologies are relatively noise-free. With a virtually silent operation, workers and supervisors can communicate easily and the risk of hearing loss is greatly reduced.

Operators are now able to speak with each other with ease. Additionally, they can also hear their own music without blasting it over the squealing of conveyor systems. Overall, this creates a better working atmosphere.

Automated fulfillment systems leverage faster robotic technology, data inventory systems and a reexamined strategy of how warehouse space is utilized. They also rethink the sometimes harsh labor conditions that ecommerce has caused, and can save workers time and energy. As ecommerce demand grows, companies should consider automated storage and retrieval and goods-to-person technologies to accommodate fulfillment needs and simultaneously improve workers’ quality of life.

Bill Leber is
Swisslog’s Director of Business Development.