Co-bots: Pairing workers with the right technologies

by Tan Aik Jin, APAC Vertical Solutions Lead, Manufacturing and Transportation & Logistics, Zebra Technologies

Online shopping is one of the most popular online activities worldwide but the usage varies per region. E-commerce is expected to be a $4.9 trillion market by 2021. No wonder warehouse operators are so eager to close the gap in their workforces. They need more people receiving, picking, packing and loading goods if they are to keep up with the rising order volume.

The problem is that labor is increasingly difficult to find and just as difficult to retain in many markets around the world. With no relief in sight from the current labor constraints, warehouse operators need a way to augment their workforce in order to preserve and, ideally, improve productivity.

Have you read “Zebra Technologies card printers receive Red Dot recognition”?

Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet. There is, however, a way for you to improve inventory management and speed up fulfillment processes without changing so much or moving so fast that quality is compromised or downtime ensues: pair workers with technologies that supplement and enhance their skill sets. These include mobile computing, printing, bar code scanning or RFID solutions that you may already have deployed on the warehouse floor or loading dock today as well as more advanced augmented reality (AR), Internet of Things (IoT) and automation technologies. And, yes, this includes robotics such as co-bots, too.

Some Philippine businesses are not yet well-oriented with the benefits of adopting collaborative robots. Misconceptions concerning the cost of initial investment versus the long-term benefits of such an approach should be reviewed in order to realize the growth of the industry. While the country is on its way to adopting automation and Industry 4.0, it is also a priority for the country to upscale the skill sets of its workers. One such initiative is from the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) which launched the TESDA Plan to assist enrollees in gaining the necessary skills to run the technologies.

The demand for and adoption of robotics in the Philippines continues to grow, particularly in the food and beverage, electronics and automotive industries. As automation becomes a necessity for local businesses to improve operations and efficiency and meet strong market demand, adopting co-bots has been one of many companies’ considerations for future investment. In fact, the Department of Trade and Industry is working hand-in-hand with various government agencies, private sectors, and the academe to prepare to adopt robots in the workforce. Recently, Universal Robots released payload co-bots that will focus on handling heavy-duty tasks and machine tending, enabling their human counterparts to work on other tasks and deliverables.

Together, these technologies can help improve individual and team productivity, while achieving workflow conformity. However, warehouse operators are going to have to pick up the pace on their technology investments if they want to capture their edge in the “now economy.”

Eighty-one percent of respondents to our Warehousing Vision Study say that implementing new technology is important to staying competitive. However, 75 percent of warehouse operators acknowledge they are slow to implement new devices and technologies and will need to adapt the new requirement for better customer service.

The Role of Robotics, RFID, Locationing Technologies and More on the Warehouse Floor

According to our latest Warehousing Vision Survey, the average time spent getting new employees up to full productivity is four to six weeks. A significant part of the onboarding process is training and familiarizing new hires with the mobile technologies they will need to use in the course of their work. While legacy mobile tools and warehouse management system (WMS) software can be notoriously difficult to learn and use, newer devices and software are much easier to learn and use. In fact, there is a host of mobile tools, utilities and applications – handheld touch computers, rugged tablets, and even printers – that can be used to automatically capture, analyze and display data in a way that’s far more familiar and intuitive for today’s workers. These devices are akin to the mobile technologies used in the workers’ personal lives and the workers can be onboarded in a matter of hours, if not minutes. They are perhaps the best way to attain near-immediate efficiency and productivity gains.

These new tools can enable workers to see exactly what they need to pick or put away by incorporating images into the workflow. They tell workers exactly how to pack an item and sort items for shipping. They empower inventory control workers to capture accurate stock counts. They alert workers immediately if a customer cancels an order so they can abort order fulfillment and save both the customer and their supply chain partners the hassle of managing unnecessary returns. They do all of these with a form factor and user experience that is intuitive and productive.

Other mobile technologies that companies should be giving their workers access to.

Augmented reality — Will help workers pinpoint precise inventory locations during picking actions, which improves fulfillment speed and accuracy.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) — Promises to create a warehouse and supply chain that are far more visible and connected than what we have today. More sensors, many of which are directly connected to the cloud, will allow for execution systems that are sensing the materials, environment and workflow directly. The IIoT will allow managers to be alerted when something is out of the ordinary and requiring their attention, allowing them to manage by exception. Location will be the first and most common use of the IoT in supply chain applications.

ocationing technologies — The use of RFID tags to transmit asset-related data to and from mobile devices are critical to track and trace equipment, assets, people and inventory. Fortunately, the explosion of innovation in this space has resulted in the creation of real-time locationing solutions for almost any need and budget. They also improve visibility, and therefore efficiency, for nearly every worker. For example, newer passive UHF technologies can provide constant visibility of a receiving dock, a shipping dock or other operational areas. Also, because they can locate tags within a few feet or track the tag through a dock door and transmit that data to a mobile device, workers can know the physical location of materials in real-time. This reduces search time and provides automated, error-proofing of inbound and outbound material moves.

Physical automation solutions can augment human labor in a very potent way; even partial automation can prove beneficial in the warehouse. Warehousing Vision Study respondents are planning to automate or augment their workforce in some capacity over the next five years. But human interaction for non-repetitive tasks is still expected in the warehouse environment, according to 61 percent of the respondents.

The technologies required for self-powered autonomous-guided vehicles (AGVs) have matured to the point that warehouse operators can now expect high quality and superb functionality at competitive prices. AGVs are equipped with a host of sensor technologies such as collision avoidance, indoor navigation, computer vision, and lidar. These features allow for safe co-mingling with humans. Humans and co-bots are proving that they work better together in the warehouse.

Contrary to the belief of some, eliminating human involvement in the warehouse is not the end goal. Rather, we want – need – to enhance and augment humans’ capabilities to eliminate common mistakes that occur with an overburdened workforce. We’re trying to make jobs easier by using technology to replace the missing headcount on the warehouse floor or loading dock.

Everyone is affected by the current labor constraints in a slightly different way, and we understand that your customers’ demands and, therefore, your business needs are not going to be the same as your competitors across the street. We can help you assess the areas within your warehouse that would most benefit from further technology investments and develop an incremental rollout plan that aligns with your business resources.

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