Lior is Co-Founder and CEO of inVia Robotics with more than 20 years’ experience in internet networking, robotics and software development.
Through the pandemic and resulting “Great Resignation,” industries were faced with the ongoing questions of how they want to work and how they work best. While some industries took this to a remote working model, others looked at how to enhance their existing environments where remote work isn’t plausible. This has led to the newfound dependency on tools like automation.
I mentioned in my last article that automation, in the form of robots, has typically been connected with the negative connotation of taking away from what humans provide. But today, this story is changing. Modern automation is putting people first, specifically as it pertains to making their work less taxing. On the one hand, it allows them to work in bursts, which offers time for phone calls, lunch, bathroom breaks and socializing among colleagues. It’s also providing people with the space to do what they do best—problem-solve and make higher-level decisions—and letting robots do what they do best—mundane and repetitive tasks.
Robots are great at executing the specific tasks they’ve been programmed to do and doing so with precision. And because of this, modern automation is becoming more commonly seen in the restaurants you eat at, the hotels where you vacation, the home deliveries you receive and even the medications you need. Robots are not, however, able to solve their own problems, and this is where people shine.
But how is this tool supplementing these industries? Beyond providing an extra set of “hands,” there are deep-rooted psychological factors that are playing a role.
The Human Nature Behind Bursting
Fundamentally, the human brain is not designed to perform the same task repeatedly with no end in sight. Instead, humans are wired to perform a task in a burst before beginning to either think about another topic or get pulled by something that catches their eye. This could be as small as a gust of wind outside your window, colleagues talking in the other room or, most likely these days, the buzzing in our pockets from a cell phone. As a whole, we desire to perform tasks that have some variety. Maybe one hour, we’re doing a repetitive task, but for the next two hours, we’re problem-solving—ultimately providing both sides of our brain with the chance to flex.
Unfortunately, most traditional automation requires people to work like robots, executing the same task over and over again as part of a handing-off sequence from machine to person. It’s monotonous work, and frankly, it’s impossible for people to keep up with the rate that automation maintains.
Remember the I Love Lucy “Job Switching” episode where the main characters attempt to work on an assembly line? It’s funny on television to watch Lucy stuff bonbons as she attempts to keep up, but this is, unfortunately, the reality for a lot of warehouse workers. Some companies don’t like when people take bathroom breaks or talk on the phone because they literally have millions of dollars worth of automation equipment waiting on them. The newer automation systems are changing this by evaluating what it is that people do best and where robots can complement them. When thinking about this from a warehouse perspective, there are several tasks that are required on a continuous basis for daily operations: walking, picking and packing.
The Repeated Task Of Walking
Let’s focus on walking. Walking (or wheeling) is a simple task that people can perform, but when that constant repetition becomes too much, it often leads to injuries, boredom or a combination of both. That’s not the case with robots. They are great at repeatedly moving between two or more points using a defined path. They can repeat these tasks endlessly, and they’re much better at them than they are at solving problems.
With that in mind, there are robotics systems available today that focus on leveraging the strengths of people and the strengths of robots. They eliminate the warehouse walking that workers do each day, allowing them to perform inventory management and packing tasks that require decision-making and dexterity. They also allow people to work in bursts, mitigating boredom and mistakes.
With this blend of automation and human collaboration, warehouses are finding long-term solutions to keep their productivity levels high and their workforces supported both mentally and financially. The labor shortage in these warehouses is understandable. People simply don’t want to be robots, and we can’t blame them for not wanting to work in these fulfillment warehouses the way they’ve traditionally operated.
As an example, my company has helped create automated solutions that resulted in pickers having to exert less energy; they are able to stay in a concentrated area with padded flooring and have more time to socialize while working. These are the kinds of innovations you should consider when bringing automation into a warehouse setting—ones that alleviate things like walking, packing and picking.
The Science Behind Productivity
Different from Amazon’s approach, there are warehouse automation tools in place that take into account the importance of removing dependencies between robots and people. By decoupling the tasks done by each labor resource or removing the direct handoffs, robotic systems have transitioned away from robots waiting on a person to ones that create buffers between machine labor and people’s labor.
In warehouses where automation is present within this form, I see a new sense of community developed. Rather than working siloed with little to no room for breaks, side conversations or collaboration, automation can pave the way for warehouse workers to work on a more social level with those around them. Putting less strain on workers’ bodies and letting them socialize should be priorities when you look to create a better and more efficient work environment.
With the right type of automation, one focused on people and their strengths, I believe we can make working for a warehouse as exciting as building a spaceship.