Tech experts and manufacturing leaders have upheld automation as the future of the industry for years. At the same time, for as long as robots have worked in factories, people have voiced concerns over job losses. The best solution is that which accounts for both sides, featuring humans and robots working together.

Robots in the supply chain shouldn't replace human workers, but rather augment their work. This middle-ground approach preserves jobs, but the benefits go beyond that as well. As more facilities dive into automation, it's become evident that using robotics and people side-by-side provides the most profitable solution.

When humans and robots work together, the supply chain is safer, more flexible and more efficient.

Accounting for Labor Shortages

Many warehouses find it challenging to find labor, but demand for these facilities is rising. Extreme circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic heighten the severity of this need, as last-mile delivery demands increase while employee availability drops. Fulfillment centres can make up for these labor shortages by employing robots alongside their employees.

As demand grows, companies need to accomplish more, but may not be able to find additional human workers. Without automation, these facilities would have to overwork their employees to meet their customers' needs. If they employ robotics, on the other hand, they can supplement the work their employees are already doing.

Traditionally, supply chain companies have had to rely on seasonal workers to manage peak seasons. This approach may slow operations down due to the necessary onboarding for new workers or lack of available labor. Using robots to meet new demands instead can lead to a 20% reduction in operating costs while making work easier for current employees.

Image 1: OTTO AMRs increase productivity by allowing highly skilled labourers to transport materials from their workstations, without stopping the process they're overseeing. 

Maximizing Adaptability

Given the advantages of automation, it may be tempting to pursue an entirely robotic workforce. As beneficial as this concept may seem, recent research suggests that robotics and people work best together. One of the most influential factors behind this is robots' limited capacity for adaptation.

Veo Robotics found that fully automated systems took weeks to adjust to a new workflow. With humans and robots working together, though, the process reached full efficiency again within a few days. Robots are highly efficient, but due to the nature of programming, they can't adapt as quickly as people can.

The same company found that using robot-human collaboration halved the time humans alone needed for a task. When people and robots work side-by-side, they reach an ideal middle ground between speed and versatility. The adaptability of humans and the efficiency of robots make up for any shortcomings in either side alone.

Job Specialization

As evidenced in the adaptability-versus-efficiency disparity, robotics and people have different specialties. The most effective approaches to automation aren't those that replace humans with robots, but instead, use both in the areas where they work best. Generally speaking, that means using robots in repetitive or data-heavy tasks while assigning humans to more nuanced roles.

Ocado, a British online supermarket, found that robots can't handle item picking as well as human employees. While Ocado's robots are excellent at finding and moving large crates, they have difficulty handling smaller and more irregular items. By employing humans to handle that part of the job, Ocado maximizes efficiency all around.

As advanced as modern robots are, they often still require humans to double-check their work. It's almost impossible to anticipate every situation that could cause a bottleneck with robots, so humans must be present to handle them. Robots in the supply chain are most advantageous when they only cover tasks that humans can't do better.

Robots and Human Bring Out the Best in Each Other

Automation is the future of the supply chain, but that doesn't mean it's the end of human labor. Debating which makes better workers misses the mark. Robotics and people have different strengths and weaknesses, so a collaborative approach works best.

Robots in the supply chain should bring out the best in employees. The inverse is true of humans. Together, they can create a better industry.


Why material entry into the manufacturing supply chain is as critical as its departure.


Why material entry into the manufacturing supply chain is as critical as its departure.

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