The use of automation in warehouses that have sprung up across Lehigh Valley won’t impact the workforce, at least for now.
“It used to be that automation would reduce labor,” said Kevvin Miller, director, Americas Consulting Supply Chain, CBRE. “But there are other parameters now, like scalability and flexibility.”
Shawn Furman, Advanced Manufacturing Technology Strategy manager, Manufacturers Resource Center in Allentown, agreed.
“The use of automation is or should be applied to a problem that a company needs to solve,” Furman said. “Most business are going to have a solid plan in place before investing, and that plan will have cost savings associated with it.”
The cost savings can include improving ergonomics, improved accuracy in order fulfillment, or reallocation or reduction of workforce.
“I listed reduction in workforce last because if you can’t find labor, you’re going to hang on to the staff you have and repurpose the workers displaced by automation into another area of your business,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to layoff trained workers you have in hand, because you are still going to need a team to manage and maintain the automation.”
Miller said the use of automation increases the technical skills needed and most companies train their workers for the tasks. That can result in higher wages.
Only about 25% to 30% of warehouses in Lehigh Valley use robotics, Miller said. Most still use conveyors which requires more labor.
“With the labor shortage, that has become an issue,” he said.
When building a warehouse, Miller said, the companies go where labor is most available.
“Everyone has seen the challenges since COVID and that if forcing some companies to automate,” he said. “Labor is a tough thing.”
The increased need for automation has come from the increased demand for same day, next day and expedited delivery, Miller said.
“Companies are in business to stay in business, which means staying competitive by making wise decisions when faced with the challenges of labor shortages,” Furman said. “Many companies practice continuous improvement to identify waste streams (materials, time, labor) which drives actions to reduce or eliminate the waste identified.”
Automation is just one of many options to help a company tackle waste, but Furman said it’s often difficult to successfully implement without taking steps beforehand to really understand the problem.
“You can’t throw automation at a problem and expect that problem to magically disappear,” he said.
Miller said companies moving to automated systems are those who deliver orders that are less than a pallet. When entire pallets are ordered, a conveyor system will work. But when orders are for partial pallets or even one item, a robotic system is needed.
Even with a robot, Miller said human workers are needed because even though a robot can be programmed to recognize a product by reading a barcode, pallets can shift which would make the product difficult for the robot to identify.
“Robotics are cost effective for moving some items, but more costly for others,” he said. “A person will often have to pick items and hand them to the robots which take them to the packing areas.”
Furman said, too, if there’s a large warehouse requiring workers to walk long distances to manually pick components off shelves, software coupled with autonomous robots could be used to optimize paths of travel for workers.
“Other benefits include ergonomics where the neck and back are strained from driving a fork truck all day,” he said.
People are also needed to maintain the robotics, Miller, whose company creates training materials for robotic systems, said.
“It takes six to 10 months to train people and get systems ramped up,” he said. “They need to learn all the systems involved.”
Miller said automation will eventually reduce the labor force needed. With the demand for on-time deliveries, he sees automation growing to 75%.
“But if you think about how technology has changed over the last 10 years and we are still only at 25%, you can see it will take time,” he said. “So, it isn’t displacing labor now, not from what I’m seeing.”
“I think the future is bright as more automation is utilized,” Furman said. “The workforce will have the opportunity to take a step away from having to spend 8 to 12-hour shifts on the shop floor doing the same task(s) all day every day. Automation will lead to jobs that will be more meaningful and rewarding in the workforce, and that’s a great place to be heading.”