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Peoplevox Product News

March of the Robots

Louisa Hopper
  • 24 July 2017
  • 6 min read

Why Artificial Intelligence and robots are good news for your e-commerce warehouse

In the area of e-commerce warehouse management and fulfilment, we’re all increasingly aware of the future impact of technological change, whether it’s contemplating the reality of driverless vehicles, drones, even flying fulfilment warehouses.   
 
Furthermore, the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics is already the cause of much debate. On the one hand there are those, of any age, who feel threatened by robots, while others just can’t wait to get acquainted. 

It is easy to see how the thought of humanoid, ‘cyborg-like’ creatures could appear a step too far. However, in one shape or another, the march of the robots is upon us in the warehouse, and already a familiar sight in many for loading and unloading pallets.
 
Hardware and software robots also present opportunities for achieving efficiencies in other areas of the complex, fast-moving e-commerce store warehouse. After all, they don’t have holidays, sick days, or even sleep! And they don’t need supervision or further ‘training’ once programmed to do a specific task.
 
Of course robots in the real-world of warehouse and fulfilment aren’t likely to emulate the somewhat more extreme sci-fi cartoonist’s vision of what a robot might do. It is perhaps more appropriate to see it as a natural evolution and extension of Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) software and materials handling equipment. It doesn’t mean the replacement of the human workforce. They will more likely co-exist side by side and be complementary to one another.
 
For example, an intelligent WMS could decide when to do a re-plan and then instruct the robot to do certain of the tasks involved. Here are some further examples:

Customer Services

‘Chatbots’ are increasingly used in customer services, handling initial order queries from customers. Rather than customers having to call and wait for a human being to pick up and answer, or run the gauntlet of online form filling, the AI-empowered chatbot can ease the strain by doing some or all of the talking. This can allow humans to spend more time on managing the more complex enquiries, improving customer experience and reducing costs.
 
Great at times of peak demand which is always a challenge and as was highlighted in our recent 2017 E-Commerce Fulfilment Report.   

Pack Bench

Robots have the potential to remove human error from the warehouse workplace as well as do certain tasks more efficiently. Packing is a good example where they are already at work on conveyors deciding which carrier receives which package: “Push parcel Left for Royal Mail, Right for DPD”. They can also decide and deliver to the pack bench which size/type of packaging is correct for a particular item or items, and seal the parcel.
 
Real-time information being continuously pushed to packers can also help them become more efficient by predicting and prioritising the volume and types of product items requiring packing – and offering them input on how to pack them.  

Picking

The human touch is irreplaceable when picking less common or smaller items which come in multiple sizes and colours, and may be stored in an illogical way. For example ‘pink knickers go with blue hats’ is something a human can perhaps recall far better as an aide de memoir than a robot.                 
 
However, small robotic devices such as Amazon’s KIVA boost picker productivity and accuracy when it comes to retrieval of certain common items across the warehouse. That’s got to be good rather than bad news for pickers, who often walk as many as 20 miles per day, and for business owners, bearing in mind pickers typically account for 60 – 80 % of warehouse overhead.
 
Rather than replacing pickers, the robot is helping them do their job faster and more effectively. At peak times, especially, this could be immensely useful rather than pulling in more contract staff, or paying overtime to existing team members as found in our 2017 E-Commerce Fulfilment Report.
 
Another stereotyped image of robots to dispel is where they are often seen to be taking over all the more menial tasks, replacing the lower cost workers. But why not look at the higher end of the scale, for example, to increase warehouse manager productivity and efficiency by relieving them of certain decision making workloads?
 
For example, software only robots have the capacity to be trained to make decisions on such things as release dates for new products and recruitment, especially important when it comes to managing labour resources and overheads during peaks and troughs.
 
AI could also empower warehouse managers to manage people more efficiently. They will have information easily to hand to conduct, for example, highly personalised performance reviews based on the fitbits their operatives might be wearing, therefore helping devise more tailored training and career development plans for personnel.  

Start looking forward

The era of AI and robotics is already here and offers considerable potential for enhancing e-commerce warehouse management. While it is more of a gradual evolution rather than an overnight revolution, e-commerce retailers need to be ready:    
 
Believe:
 
Any unfounded fears and prejudices should be put to one side. A pragmatic approach is necessary to avoid finding all robots guilty without charge.
  
Accept:
 
By accepting and responding to technology-driven change, just as we have all had to do in the past, you will avoid the risk of automatically shutting your business out of potential future opportunities, allowing competitors to steal a march on you.
 
Prepare:
 
Start thinking now how you could harness the potential of AI and robotics in your warehouse and fulfilment operation. If you already have a WMS, consider how it may help you. How used together with AI and robotics it might help your human workforce better cope with growing workloads as you scale, and keep on top of increasingly demanding deadlines for meeting ever shorter customer delivery deadlines.
 
Even if you don’t currently have a WMS, and no matter what stage your business is at, start looking forward to a new era in the warehouse: Where technology delivers increased productivity and profitability, but with less stress, greater customer satisfaction, and improved working conditions and career prospects for staff.
 

If you would like to plan for the future and learn more about making your e-commerce warehouse and fulfilment operations more efficient, contact us anytime for a free, no obligation consultation. To find out about all the benefits Peoplevox Warehouse Management Software could offer your e-commerce business; download our WMS Buyers Guide.  
 
 

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