Will Warehouse Workers Be Replaced By Robots?

Warehouse robots are just one form of warehouse automation, but they’re making a big impact. From greater flexibility and scalability to productivity gains, a faster ROI compared to other automation solutions and better resource management, warehouse robots are changing the face of warehousing. But what does that mean for industry employment?

We are currently in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the logistics sector is one that is predicted to experience significant change and not only in the technology that is being implemented but also in the skills and experience needed to operate in the sector. Despite technology advancements – warehouse workers are still in high demand and in short supply especially during the current pandemic.

The e-commerce boom has fuelled the need for warehouses to speed up logistics operations and streamline supply chain management processes, leading to transformed warehouse operations and the need for smarter warehouses.

While a typical warehouse in the past saw workers running aisle to aisle, manually stocking shelves, sorting out items and doing paperwork to ensure accurate inventory management, today, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools, robots, RFID (radio frequency identification technology) scanners and printers, automated delivery drones and self-driving vehicles have revolutionised warehouse workings.

Does this mean the end for warehouse works over time?

Not necessarily – while more people continue to be displaced and robots taking charge, so are new job roles being created for skilled and talented professionals to work alongside robots, streamline logistic operations and expedite product delivery. It is projected that by 2025, the warehouse of the future will see increased levels of efficiency and production whilst still needing warehouse workers.

As the warehouse industry embraces cloud adoption and Internet of Things (IoT), it is now migrating to on-demand, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) warehouse management systems to save on costs, in terms of warehouse personnel requirement and on premise equipment.

It has always been a challenge to find, recruit and retain good quality, skilled warehouse workers in the logistics sector. However, a number of new factors are affecting the industry and a key consideration today is the rise in millennial workers.

  • This tech savvy generation will not respond well to paper based processes and outdated, legacy green-screens but will quickly embrace mobile and wearable technologies that improve their day to day engagement and performance.
  • Equipping the workforce with innovative technologies designed to support modern warehousing practices will help organisations recruit and retain skilled workers.
  • The familiarity of mobile devices, touch-screens and operating systems such as Android can reduce training times – slashing on- boarding from weeks down to hours, a key consideration during seasonal peaks.

With millennials estimated to make up 50% of the global workforce by 2022, there is a huge opportunity for organisations to rethink the role of mobile and digital technologies within the warehouse.

It recent reports, when it comes to the future of warehousing employment, there are two very different stories being told. The first is one of massive job losses, and the second of minimal change. Here are two headlines from recent months which show just how disparate these two different positions are.

Earlier this year, The Guardian declared that “Automation [will] take 1 in 3 warehousing jobs in UK’s northern centres”. The article was based on a report by The Centre for Cities which predicts that almost one-third of the jobs in the Nottinghamshire town of Mansfield, near Sports Direct’s main fulfilment base are involved in lines of work under threat as robots begin to replace humans in the years up to 2030. It explains that the jobs at most risk of replacement include those in retail sales, customer services, administration and the warehouse.

Warehouse Hiring Isn’t Slowing Down Despite the Increase in Robotics and Automation

Then there’s the view from the other end of the spectrum, from the position of looking at what the reality of innovation in a warehouse will look like from the position of the people who see how fast change can be enacted in their workplace, who understand the day to day responsibilities of getting fulfilment right.

A recent NPR/Marist poll revealed that 94% of U.S. warehouse workers believe that “it’s unlikely they will lose jobs to automation.” Although the article tends to lean on anecdotal evidence (like the sigh and pause given when a warehouse worker explains about his job that “I don’t think a robot could do this”), it does shine a light on how the robotics in use at the most cutting-edge retailers is currently sitting alongside their human counterparts. Amazon, with its 25+ robotics fulfilment centres, is “perpetually on a hiring spree…these fulfilment centres employ 2,000 to 4,000 full-time hourly associates.”

Robotics at present isn’t grounded in reality for the majority of warehouses because:

  • The cost of introducing any hardware needs to be justified. Automated hardware is expensive and, owing to how quickly the technology is developing, it’s tricky to invest in a product that is vulnerable in an environment where continual change and obsolescence are rife.
  • Even if the cost of investing widely in robotics was justifiable from a business perspective, there are a tonne of smaller low value tasks that should first be considered for software automation before a complete robotics overhaul takes place.
  • It should be black or white whether to invest in automation. The results should be proven. Because a lot of the most innovative technology is so new, it’s not proven. It’s too great a risk. It’s incredibly difficult to define the true ROI of a major investment in robotics.

Therefore we can safely say that there is no immediate discard of warehouse employees on the horizon as demand for e-commerce continues to rise and the vast majority of companies don’t have the massive budgets of Amazon to play around with to invest in robotics etc.

What does the future bring for warehouse workers?

We believe for the majority of warehouses, will lie somewhere in between both extremes. Will there be job losses? Yes, eventually. But, for the foreseeable future, the main story about warehousing automation isn’t one that’s focused on robots taking the baton from their human predecessors. The main story here is about how automation – with regards to both software and hardware – will help to enhance the capabilities of warehouse staff.

Complete robot domination in the warehouse is a long way off

The warehouse is changing from cost centre to ‘growth centre’. Multi-channel, omni-channel, e-commerce, diversification; all these developments are changing the dull warehouse into a dynamic environment. Goods are constantly in motion. This is where automation can come in incredibly useful. Arm your warehouse staff with technology, such as cloud WMS, that can deliver on ROI, can speed up the fulfilment process and can guarantee accurate deliveries, resulting in a perfect environment for growth.

As the use of automation increases so does the reliance on accurate data. There is an increasing need for logistics professionals to understand and manipulate complicated data but with a strong operational grounding to be able to interpret it. Logistics operations are increasingly seeking key skills from supply chain (planning) and manufacturing (H&S, compliance, process driven) environments. Robots are here to stay but for now Warehouse workers will not become obsolete and in fact have greater job opportunities if they are prepared to move with the times.

About us:

Speak to one of our team to understand how Clarus’ WMS system can cost effectively support best practice warehouse management processes, better customer service and highly efficient working for a range of warehouse operations with pay per month options and no IT infrastructure needed.

Our platform can scale from a one user, small depot system to a 100’s of user distribution centre operation. The ClarusWMS platform will cost effectively scale with your business based on demand.

ClarusWMS is a UK based supplier of warehouse management solutions with a wealth of industry experience in third party logistics, wholesale / retail distribution, online fulfillment and manufacturing warehousing.