How the logistics industry will embrace robotics?

Author: John Hardy, European Sales & Marketing Director, Panasonic System Solutions Europe

 

One of the biggest challenges facing the global logistics industry is whether it will have a sufficiently strong labour force in the next twenty years. A significant labour shortage is predicted in many developed countries, where, for the first time, future populations will be smaller than past generations. So, within this context, how can global supply chains and logistics companies survive and thrive in the future?

Although some businesses are already integrating higher levels of automation and robotics into their workplace to help mitigate the anticipated labour shortages, research from DHL shows that 80% of existing warehouses are still  manually operated with no supporting automation.

The logistics industry must face-up to what the workplace will look like in the future and address common social preconceptions resulting from automation if it wants to continue to be competitive. So, what will it take for warehouses around the world to become more automated?

 

The road to automation adoption

 

Panasonic Business recently hosted a logistics industry forum at the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry, to discuss the barriers to and accelerators of automation with leading industry experts.

Professor Hani Hagras, Director of the Computational Intelligence Centre at the University of Essex discussed that the way for robotics to really advance further is for them to properly converge with artificial intelligence; that it is vital for robotics to properly react and adapt to varying environmental conditions.

In agreement, Alex Harvey, Head of Robotics and Autonomous Systems at Ocado argued that a data-led approach, where the robotics take on board feedback from sensors and adapt, is the only way to deal with 50,000 different items with packaging that changes frequently.

Alongside integrating artificial intelligence, the experts discussed the classical approach of building a large automated warehouse from scratch, which can work if it’s possible to predict and plan sufficiently far in advance. However, Harvey promoted a more data-driven approach, with a system that is modular and scalable. He shared a visualisation of a grid system solution where boxes are stacked and robots move up and down the layers to pick out particular goods – the solution being that the facility can be scaled up or down depending on the demand.

The discussions also included adoption challenges, with security being a leading issue. The forum came to the conclusion that we have to acknowledge that there are risks from design flaws and bugs through to malicious interference. Rigorous ongoing internal testing needs to be scaled up as automation becomes a greater part of logistics operations globally and businesses place more reliance on the technology.

But the most critical challenge raised beyond the technology itself, was how the industry is responding to short-term social issues resulting from automation.

This generated the greatest response at the forum, specifically the thorny issue of replacing human employees with robots. Whilst the long-term need due to future labour shortages was acknowledged, redeployment as a means of addressing the short-term concern was discussed. Retraining staff and enabling them to make more use of their human skills in other parts of the business was highlighted as a valuable solution. Increasingly, companies are finding new ways to deploy talent to remain relevant in the workplace – a positive step forward for introducing and integrating robotics and automation into daily operations and logistics.

 

If you would like to read more about what was discussed, our white paper on Robotics and Automation, outlines some of the challenges to implementing these technologies, to read more, please visit: bit.ly/logisticsreport2

 

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