Integrating Robotics Into The Supply Chain: Part 2

AutomationAs manufacturing facilities, warehouses and distribution centers have recently been integrating robotics more into their operations, there is still high demand and need for skilled workers, especially in periods of peak demand. Zintro experts evaluate Amazon’s acquisition of the robot manufacturer, Kiva for almost a billion dollars and discuss what type of jobs will fit better into automated manufacturing.

Mechatronics engineering specialist, Morteza Heydari Araghi draws attention to how much robots have contributed to technological expansion and job creation in the last 30 years. “They facilitate the distribution tasks, while their over-head expenses are not much, and will return the investment pretty fast, only if the warehouse or distribution center is large. There always remains enough human workers so that the design, production, and maintenance of robots makes economical sense,” notes Araghi. “It is noteworthy, however, that the type of available jobs changes, and in general, human workers have to be more intelligent in their jobs. If a company cares more about profit, then there will be job cuts, as the concept of Kiva robots makes economical sense. The technology, however, will indirectly open up new job positions, as it facilitates trade.”

As supply chain consultant, David Meyers indicates, more product can flow through the distribution centers more rapidly, when components are effectively integrated through a Warehouse Control System (WCS) to the Warehouse Management System (WMS). “When Tompkins International designs state-of-the-art distribution operations we analyze the amount of labor that can be saved by using alternative methods of handling our clients’ product versus the investment and support costs of the integrated MHE solution. When that analysis is included as part of the warehouse facility design we can evaluate those alternatives and make recommendations as to which option provides the greatest return on investment while also considering any qualitative factors that are important to the client,” Meyers explains. “These solutions require engineers to design them and contractors to implement them while ensuring that skilled labor is employed to operate and maintain them. Industry will always need the human brain to program and to support the robot in your distribution center.”

Athinodoros Georghiades, an independent technology consultant, mentions all the challenges the increased use of robots in various industries presents. “Using more seasonal workers during periods of peak demand could lead to significant inefficiencies and transient instability in the workplace, as the large number of seasonal workers would have to be trained and briefed by the depleted ranks of permanent employees, diverting critical resources from vital operations,” he explains. “This can create significant risks in the form of delays and increased number of mistakes in fulfillments, possibly damaging a firm’s reputation.” Even though Georghiades believes that the risks associated with seasonal worker can be alleviated to a certain degree with more adept, multitasking robots and better scheduling, he is still concerned about the dynamic nature of demand. “Robots are nonetheless more suitable—and possibly more disruptive—in industries that are less susceptible to seasonality, such as car manufacturing, electronics manufacturing, solar-panel assembly, as well as warehouses supplying supermarkets,” he adds.

Dennis Lockhart, senior consultant and systems engineer, shares his worldwide experience on robotics and the development of automated manufacturing facilities. “What I have found over the years is that automation does reduce the amount of people working, but it also provides an employment stabilization effect. During the rush period of the holidays, employees will increase to take of the extra demand,” notes Lockhart. “The demand will continue to decrease in the warehouse over the years, as automation is fine-tuned. Some of those employees will be absorbed into other more difficult jobs, but the net result over time is higher productivity of the warehouse with fewer employees.”

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By Idil Kan