Better Together: Humans and Robots in the Warehouse

It’s not hard to find headlines touting a “robots taking over the workplace” narrative, like this recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Robots Are Replacing Workers Where You Shop,” or this one from CNN Money: “Robots Could Wipe Out Another 6 Million Retail Jobs.” Before declaring a protest on all robots, however, it’s important to hear another perspective that doesn’t get as much press.

An article that appeared earlier this year in the Houston Chronicle read, “In Houston, Amazon’s Robots Mean More Work for Humans, Not Less.” The article went on to state that Amazon expects to hire 2,500 full-time employees to staff its massive warehouse – more than double the number of jobs it announced the prior year at the outset of the project.

Amazon isn’t the only company finding common ground for humans and robots in its warehouses. Earlier this year in Tennessee, DHL began testing robots to assist its pickers in order fulfillment. Rather than pushing a bin or cart, the robots work alongside workers, helping them pick out medical devices that need to be shipped quickly. Third-party logistics provider Quiet Logistics Inc., which fulfills online orders for retailers like Bonobos and Zara, uses the same type of mobile robots in one of its warehouses to support its employees.

Robot + Human Collaboration = Cobot

Unlike the doomsday narrative of robots taking over the workplace, savvy companies are creating synergistic scenarios where robots perform repetitive, simple job tasks and human laborers focus on tasks that require deeper thinking and strategizing. The new term for this collaboration, “cobot,” allows each type of worker to focus on the tasks they do best. For example, some robots can be used to guide workers to the items that need to be picked or routed through the warehouse to the workers who need to pack and ship them.

According to Barclay’s research, the cobot market will be worth $3.1 billion by 2020. The affordability of the technology is playing a big part in its adoption, too. Barclay’s research found that pricing for collaborative robots is steadily dropping by 3% to 5% a year. With an average price in 2015 of $28,000, the expected price of a cobot in 2025 will be around $17,500.

Another plus for cobots is that they don’t require a pricey extensive network of conveyor belts and automation systems. Collaborative robots can be especially useful for handling surges in sales that happen around the holidays, when it can be difficult to find extra workers. “It’s not meant to replace human labor, but you can get greater throughput with the same size workforce,” said John Santagate, an analyst with IDC Manufacturing Insights.

Cobots can slash the number of steps workers take to fulfill an order, but they don’t necessarily grab objects off shelves at this point in time. RK Logistics Group turned to these robots when they couldn’t fit any more workers into their building and needed to increase productivity. Employees pick parts off shelves and place them on blue racks on top of the robots, which then glide over to workers at stations where orders are packed and shipped. The robots now handle nearly 50% of the items the facility ships, in about half the time it takes a human worker and without a large capital investment.

The Future of Cobots: Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI)

Aside from lower prices and higher adoption rates, there’s another interesting cobot trend worth keeping an eye on, which is the ability for human workers to control machines with nothing more than their thoughts. The key to this remarkable technology is a wearable device that measures brain activity and translates it into a language a computer can understand. Researchers at MIT are already hard at work on developing what’s being called brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). They’re even claiming they’ve been able to achieve up to 20% robotic performance improvement by enabling robots to adapt to users’ thought commands. While these claims feel more like something from a Sci-Fi movie, it’s nice to know that even if a robot can’t read your mind, it can still improve workplace productivity by working collaboratively with laborers rather than working against them.

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