From warehouse to pavement, the robots are coming

If we cast our minds back to 2019, pre-coronavirus, consumers had the choice to shop across multiple channels including physical stores, social media, online marketplaces, pop-up stores, online, or in apps to mention but a few – the list of options was extensive.

As options for buying goods disappeared during lockdown, not only did eCommerce boom, the creative use of technology - such as robots - has also come to the fore and we’re increasingly seeing more robots being deployed into the wider supply chain network, whereas previously they may have been limited to the warehouse or distribution centre environments.

Just look at the transformation of last mile delivery recently, allowing supermarkets to get orders to consumers without compromising the health or safety of either their staff or customers.

The question is: as robotics and automation moves beyond warehouses and distribution centres (DCs) as part of more distributed supply chain networks, are brands ready to embrace these developments and how can they best navigate these technology challenges?

Robotics in the supply chain

The use of robotics and automation technology in warehouses or DCs certainly isn’t new. Retailers across the world have been perfecting the balance of man (and woman) and machine for some time to boost efficiencies, reduce errors and make this particular part of the supply chain seamless.

In fact, the use of robotics has grown exponentially over time, from the first debut of this technology in the automobile plant industry. Today, a wide range of laboratories, factories, hospitals, energy plants, warehouses and other industries are reliant on automation and robotics.

Now, as warehouses and DCs still battle the changes bought by the pandemic, they need to instil flexibility and scalability and reduce their dependence on unreliable or temporary labour pools to meet their operational requirements. Implementing automation and robotics is the perfect way to do this.

With the use of robotics and automated processes within DCs and warehouses, retailers can process eCommerce orders far more swiftly and safely, rather than relying purely on manual pickers. By strategically implementing robotics and automation, supply chains can work around the clock without having to delay deliveries, while still delivering on promises made to customers.

However, it is important to note that whilst robotics and automation provide an abundance of benefits, this must be complemented with human employees to perform certain tasks that robots are simply not yet able to do. Quite simply, man (and woman) and machine must work in harmony.

Robotics beyond the warehouse

Move further along the supply chain to delivery and the use of robotics is quite different, with last mile delivery having been transformed in the last five years.

Understanding the benefits of robotics and automation technology within the warehouse, many retailers are now starting to consider how this technology can be used both within their stores and beyond. In particular, robots have been used in recent months as a completely contactless-free delivery method to ensure local communities and vulnerable people are still able to get goods delivered to their door.

Certainly, at the moment, eliminating human employees and focusing on machines in some areas, is one way to keep consumers and employees safe and it has given retailers a vision of what the future of delivery might look like. But this is not a sustainable method for retailers across the entire supply chain and retailers must recognise that a human touch is still required.

Robotics in the future

Covid-19 has accelerated questions around the use of automation and robotics and has highlighted how it is applicable to existing businesses models, with much success in the grocery sector and last-mile delivery. As some parts of the UK are able to see ‘normality’ creeping back in, it will be interesting to see what other sectors, and which other parts of the supply chain, adopt further robotics and automation technology.

However, as technology becomes more sophisticated and consumer habits and business practices transform, only time will tell how important a role robotics and automation will come to play in warehouses and supply chains of the future.