Warehouse Automation Requires Adaptability


Posted on February 18, 2021 by John Ripple


Advanced warehouse automation technology exceeds the ability of all but the most sophisticated users to adapt it into their operations. Over the last few years, there have been numerous advances in robotic equipment, sensors, vision, algorithms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Complex technology that enables equipment and systems that are stronger, faster, and smarter than their predecessors.

In the world of warehousing and distribution we find that complex technology surpasses customer willingness to have their operations disrupted with unproven, complicated, and risky solutions. Just because suppliers can, doesn’t mean users will.

This article will explore 3 themes related to innovation and adaptability:

  1. Where we are today on the journey toward advanced technology.
  2. Importance of adaptability to strategic advantage.
  3. Improve Without Disruption. Meet them where they are.

Adoption of Advanced Technology – Current State of Affairs:

The US Census Bureau conducted a survey of 583,000 businesses in the USA in 2018 and found that advanced technology was single digit market penetration. Of the companies surveyed, the percentage of companies that reported using advanced technology was:

  • Machine Learning 4%
  • Voice Recognition 3%
  • Machine Vision 2%
  • Robotics 2%
  • Augmented Reality 1%
  • Automated Vehicles 1%

Of course, there are some industry verticals that have much higher rates of adoption. Though on the whole, rates of adoption are still quite low. There are 3 observations that may be drawn from these results:

First, the future opportunity for suppliers of advanced technology is HUGE! All suppliers need to do is convince people to change and the opportunity is boundless.

Second, the current opportunity to help companies with incremental change right now is MASSIVE! If suppliers can solve problems without disruption, the opportunity is immediate.

Third, as a society we need to consider how we approach the human impact of automation. Studies indicate that automation results in a net gain of jobs. However, those jobs require different skills. New skills that may take a generation or more to acquire.

Rural areas are likely to suffer most. The workers who drive knowledge and innovation within manufacturing tend to be concentrated in larger cities, and those skills are harder to automate. The poorer/rural regions that are expected to lose the most jobs (because of automation) will not benefit equally from new jobs created due to a gap in skills. That will lead to increased income inequality.

Automation will continue to drive regional polarization and uneven distribution of benefits and costs across populations. We need to be innovative as a society helping people adapt to the disruption of automation. How to do that is difficult. Step 1 is recognizing that we have large swaths of our population not prepared for change and little ability to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Importance of Adaptability – Moving Forward:

Technology is changing faster than we can adapt. We’re talking about adaptability of society as a whole, not just you the reader of this article. The Aspen Institute conducted research on human adaptability to technology as it relates to education. The conclusions may be extended to the field of warehouse automation and advanced robotics. As illustrated in the graph, technology is increasing at a faster pace than human adaptability.

Image credit: Aspen Institute

We can extend the relationship of technology vs. adaptability to the world of advanced automation, robotics, and automated warehousing in a few different ways:

First, technology suppliers are designing highly technical solutions that companies (people!) are not yet ready to adapt to at scale. Hence, low levels of adoption despite availability of advanced technologies for the last several decades. In some ways, humans are highly adaptable. In other ways, humans avoid change at all costs. Put simply: there are many suppliers designing advanced robotics for customers that aren’t yet ready to adapt.

Second, companies (people) that adapt quickly to advanced technology will use technology as a competitive advantage. That means a small number of early disruptors will eat the lunch of companies (run by people) that refuse to change. Companies need to look at advanced automation not as a tool to reduce cost, but to ensure continued survival. Adoption doesn’t mean justification solely based on reduced labor. We should be motivated to implement advanced technologies to survive and thrive. Fear and opportunity are good motivators.

Third, complex material handling systems are designed, manufactured, and installed that cannot be supported adequately by the suppliers that designed them and the customers that purchased them. Ironically, in many cases the added complexity arises out of an attempt to reduce solution costs! Sophisticated algorithms that optimize performance; but of such sophistication that even the architects that designed the algorithms barely understand them.

Success may mean bending both curves: adaption up and technology down. We need to increase the resiliency of people to adapt to new technology through training and education. When implementing cutting edge systems, we should not be afraid to bend the technology curve down. Simplicity is elegance.

Improve Without Disruption. Meet them where they are:

If “innovative / disruptive / market changing” is your mantra, then I suggest you stop reading now. If you’d like to serve 95% of companies where they are today, then proceed. Companies that employ advanced technology make up less than 5% of the market. For the remaining 95%, how do technology innovators meet the masses where they are today? Frankly, not just meet them where they are today, but meet them where they are likely to be for the next decade.

Innovation in the warehousing and distribution industry tends to be pushed, not pulled. Suppliers and customers should spend more time talking about problems they have that can be solved today --- that don’t require a technological moonshot. That flies in the face of “innovative disruption” that drives VC investment in technology startups.

Suppliers: Pick a niche. A narrow niche. Talk with people in that niche about the problems they have. Learn what types of solutions they could adopt readily based on typical budgets, flexibility requirements, lead-times, risk tolerance, and ability to support as organizations. Develop solutions based on market feedback that are tailored to the needs and solve the problems of a specific industry. Just because you created a cool product (in a university robotics lab), doesn’t mean the market is ready to buy.

Customers: Take it slow when you start (but do start!). Companies (end-users) deploying successful automation systems have been doing it for the last 20+ years. Don’t bite off more than you can chew to play competitor catch-up. Slow and steady wins the race. Experience builds on experience (company experience; not just individuals). Bend that adaptability curve upward.

The challenge with starting small is that small projects rarely have a justifiable business case, based solely on financial return. Best to consider that starting small is the “cost of education”. An investment in determining what type of automation works in your operation. An investment in adaptability training.

Every company needs to learn how to apply the technology in their own operations, with their own people, systems, processes, and customer needs. The benefits of automation are not just equipment and software. Much of the benefit comes from improvements in operations, process, and material flow. This involves people-change (adaptability!) to be successful.

We’ve only just started the journey toward widespread adoption of advanced automation. If you’ve been reluctant to adapt, then just get started. Innovation doesn’t happen in an instant. Companies and individuals that adapt will survive and grow. There is opportunity meeting people where they are and building step-by-step. Not everyone needs to take a moon-shot. If you need help along the way, then Find an Expert!

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