Robots Are Taking Over the E-Commerce Warehouse

Robots Are Taking Over the E-Commerce Warehouse

Lior Elazary, chief executive officer of inVia Robotics, is entirely comfortable with stating that “robots are taking over the supply chain.” But that doesn’t preclude a continuing role for humans, he says. At least for now.

The need to automate the fulfillment of e-commerce orders in particular is driving the use of robotics in the warehouse, he said. E-tailers that rely on human labor simply can’t keep pace with the volume of business.

“A lot of people, when they go online, don’t realize that there’s a person on the other end who has to go and do the shopping for them,” Elazary says. “That hasn’t been scaling, and a lot of e-commerce is feeling the pain.”

Automated systems providers such as inVia “can’t produce the robots fast enough,” he says. The days of tolerating a six-week wait for mail-order items is over. Now, it’s all about two-day, one-day and same-day delivery. “Everybody’s looking for a solution to do this.”

In a growing number of distribution centers, managers have no choice but to embrace automation. They can’t find enough humans to carry out tasks that are seen as mind-numbingly repetitive. (And low-paying.) With unemployment at close to 4 percent, the labor pool for warehouse work in many locations is just too shallow. Robots are being brought in to fill the gaps.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of today’s robotics technology is its flexibility in adjusting to rapid shifts in consumer buying trends. Even traditional goods-to-person systems, with their partial reliance on automation, can be expensive to implement and difficult to reconfigure in line with changing demand. “A company would have to predict 10 years into the future what its throughput would be,” Elazary says.

Robots, by contrast, can be quickly brought up to speed in a facility, and shifted around the warehouse to respond to the needs of the moment. Elazary says a robot can learn the layout of a 200,000 square-foot facility in a matter of hours. What’s more, the same unit can be programmed to perform multiple tasks.

About the half the work of robots in e-commerce warehouses today consists of moving stuff around. They’re being called into service for putaway, picking, assembling items into complete orders, and moving them to automated packaging systems. In the process, facilities are able to slash the amount of time that humans spend just walking from place to place.

The viability of robots in a given facility depends partly on the items being stocked. Toners and ink cartridges, for example, lend themselves easily to automated picking systems. But the fulfillment of orders for an online dollar store, involving a multitude of inexpensive items, is another matter. In that case, Elazary says, humans tend to be the more cost-effective option.

Even a facility that makes heavy use of robots might still employ people to do the actual picking. The machine provides the task and location of the pick, receives the product from the human worker and moves it to the packaging station in the most efficient way possible. For all the talk of innovations in automation today, Elazary believes not enough attention is being paid to the potential for robots “to amplify the human workforce.”

Humans and robots can work side by side, in sharp contrast to the days when they had to be physically segregated for reasons of safety. Today’s moving robot can sense the sudden presence of a person and adjust its path accordingly. There’s no need for a confined infrastructure and “scary machines that only specialized technicians can work on,” Elazary says.

Don’t expect the ratio of human to machine in e-commerce warehouses to remain at current levels, however. The clear trend is toward greater automation — leading in some cases to more “lights-out warehouses” that require no people at all. Elazary says the unattractiveness of warehouse work, combined with the obvious advantages of automation, will lead to the increased use of robots in coming years.

When it comes to automation, warehouse operating systems are on the same path as that of self-driving cars and trucks. Humans are being increasingly removed from the equation. What they’ll do instead is a question that’s yet to be answered. The rosiest scenarios envision them in higher-skilled positions with better pay and a greater sense of personal fulfillment. Pessimists see a world of chronic unemployment and economic strife.

For their part, e-tailers are less concerned with divining the distant future than they are figuring out how to efficiently manage the shipment of some 300 million items a day — a number that is growing exponentially. And if that means replacing flesh and blood with circuits and chips, then so be it.