Wednesday, August 10, 2022

E-commerce in South Africa is on the rise, driving warehouse automation and digitalisation. This is according to research by Knight Frank, which indicates further that South Africa remains the largest and most sophisticated warehousing and logistics market across the continent.

Prior to the pandemic, warehouse operators who were committing to robotics automation solutions were considered innovative and pioneering. In fact, respondents to a 2019 Warehousing Vision Study conducted by Zebra indicated that the adoption of robotic material handling solutions was only expected to grow by 6-8% in a five-year period.

But times have changed. The demand for “fast shipping” has soared to unprecedented levels, which has also sparked a change in attitudes toward robots. Automating manual workflows has become necessary for the sake of workforce augmentation, and robots are in demand by warehouse operators and associates alike.

A recent article in the UK’s The Financial Times says warehouse operators are expected to invest $36bn in automation this year, up 20% on 2020. Stefan Nusser, Senior Director of Product Management for Robotics Automation with Zebra Technologies, shared an interesting statistic with me from a recent research report, namely that mobile robot shipments increased by more than 25% in 2020, with nearly 60,000 heading to sites to support the scaling of e-commerce and supply chain operations.

This wasn’t a short-lived pandemic surge, either. Stefan also tells me that analysts predict more than 2.1 million additional mobile robots will ship in the next three years, with warehouses being a top destination.

The case for automation

It has become clear that robotics automation is the key to supply chain stabilisation amid sustained e-commerce growth. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) free up workers to focus on the value-driven tasks that make their jobs meaningful and rewarding, and they can compensate for labour shortages when needed by keeping fulfilment, distribution, reverse logistics, and production workflows moving uninterrupted.

The same Financial Times article above cites the example of one logistics company that made 26,000 hires to get the 13,000 warehouse staff needed because so many new recruits drop out after the first few days.

AMRs can help mitigate worker burnout and resignations and, in many cases, increase the number of referrals extended by employees – ultimately making warehouses an attractive place to work.

But what about jobs?

Some argue that robots are replacing workers, however the aim is to make the workforce more productive and not to replace workers. Companies are turning to flexible automation solutions to help augment their workforces, particularly AMRs that can dynamically collaborate with workers and safely navigate facilities. By utilizing AMRs to move goods and materials from one place to the next, associates can stay in one place and spend 100% of their time focused on their job, whether that’s picking, packing, or putting away items.

Limiting the amount of walking for associates and reducing their responsibilities makes a dramatic difference when you’re trying to increase fulfillment capacity and speed by double digits. Once they’re in sync with their robot coworkers, associates can get in a rhythm in their work zones and reach maximum productivity quite quickly.

Associates also have more time to pay attention to what’s happening around them when they’re not rushing around flustered, trying to meet deadlines as the tasks pile on. If inventory looks like it’s running low in a certain category or SKU, they have the time to report it. Or if something is misplaced, they can take an extra minute to fix it.

This automatically increases their value to warehouse operators who are striving to get better control over inventory. It also improves workers’ self-worth, as they are making visibly positive contributions to the business. They don’t feel like robots themselves, running in repetitive circles all day.

Plus, it’s easier to retain people when you reduce how much and how far they must walk each day by 50-60%.

Warehouse jobs have a reputation for being physically demanding, and pain and exhaustion are mentally draining. If we want to turn around the labour situation long term and get more people to apply for open positions, we must make warehouse jobs so simple that workers go home feeling proud of all they accomplished and empowered to do more the next day.

This positive energy will start to spread across communities, with employees encouraging friends, family and neighbours to come work with them.

A comprehensive solution

Intelligent robots such as AMRs can both give and receive instructions either through an on-board human machine interface (HMI) or via the mobile computing devices that human workers have on hand, including wearables, handhelds, and tablets.

All associates must do is follow the steps communicated through the on-board HMI, their device screens, or headsets to get through tasks with minimal training and no prior experience. The AMR can help coach them through the picking or put away process, so they don’t have to track down a human colleague for help. Likewise, when associates need help moving items, they just need to request assistance and the flexible robots will head right over.

AMRs help eliminate the learning curve and skills requirements that would have previously deterred many warehouse job candidates. They also reduce the number of experienced associates that must be pulled away from their daily responsibilities to train new hires. In turn, inbound and outbound operations can remain steady all day long, even when there are waves of change in the workforce or a surge of customer demands.

Now’s the time to get the facts and take the next step to leverage AMRs to augment your workforce and maintain workflow continuity and meet the demand or seasonal peaks.

Neil Gouveia, Regional Director (Africa), Zebra Technologies