When the American worker hears the word “automation,” he almost always reacts with a bit of anxiety. That’s not an unfounded anxiety. The United States lost 5.6 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010. Approximately 85 percent of those were lost to automation. As the brave new world of automation moves into logistics, your employees might rightly be concerned that their job is the next to be replaced by a computer.
But automation isn’t a grim prospect by any means. Some studies suggest that automation creates more jobs than it destroys. And what’s not in question is that automation makes for more efficient warehouse spaces, including safer, more productive and more satisfied employees. Automation can even make a warehouse more environmentally friendly while saving you money and improving employee morale.
Daniel Stanton, an executive who specializes in supply chain management, explains that automation can change jobs in two ways. “One is incremental or sustaining innovation, the other is radical or disruptive innovation.” The former represents new ways of doing the same old thing, while the latter completely changes the game. Much of the automation that we see today sits firmly in the latter.
Machines can accomplish certain tasks better than even the most talented human. In a recent article, Stanton notes that “Machines are better at processing data than people. The same is true when it comes to repetitive physical tasks like lifting, holding, and carrying stuff.” New jobs may be coming, but for now the economy is playing catch up.
“Creating new innovations is a hard process to automate,” says Stanton. “People are good at applying intuition and judgment, what I call wisdom.” As we hand the drudge work off to drones and computers, more complex and ultimately more fulfilling tasks of management and client-facing responsibilities will remain in the hands of humans.
While the human-oriented sector catches up, warehouse automation offers key advantages. Safety necessarily improves when employees come out of the line of fire. This in turn makes options like building inventory upward easier and more attractive. Efficiency improves and overhead decreases. Machines are simply faster, stronger and less prone to mistakes than humans.
Automation also offers quick wins for environmental concerns. Andrew Winston, author, speaker and founder of Eco-Strategies, notes that the environmental aspects of automation are closely linked to increased productivity among your human staffers. Companies tend to view sustainability as a very abstract concept with global impact. However, Winston says that employees working in LEED Certified, sustainable organizations are “happier, more engaged and more productive.” These benefits can be difficult to measure, but they are tangible and real.
Capital investment in automation can be expensive. That’s why Winston recommends a longer-term view of return on investment. “We have to rethink ROI and be much broader minded. We need to be smarter in terms of what’s creating value.” Even if it takes five years to see a return on your investment, that’s still a return.
The rise of the machines isn’t upon us yet, but it’s coming sooner rather than later. Investing in automation today gives you the drop on your competition. In many cases, it also means a safer, more productive and happier environment for the humans who have to work alongside their new robotic colleagues. While the upfront costs are significant, so are the long-term benefits. Ultimately, the question isn’t if you’ll automate certain processes in your supply chain, but when.
Learn more about how automation and other strategies can affect the efficiency of your labor force in our recent warehouse labor management white paper. Or, take a look at our warehouse infrastructure E-Book to gain additional insights on how to optimize your warehouse using automation and beyond.