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What does the future hold for the automation of warehouses?

Plans by online supermarket Ocado to introduce a human-like robotic hand to its production line raises questions about whether humans will be needed in warehouses of the future.  

The hand, which is capable of picking up delicate grocery products, could be introduced in as little as three years.

Automation of warehouses is developing at breakneck speed, but one area that has always held it back is machines’ ability to pick up items that have a unique shape or weight.

The way an item is packaged can also severely limit the ability of a robot to be used for picking.

“I worked on a project with a retailer where we were trying to grip and move bags of clothing,” says Chris Roberts, head of industrial robotics at Cambridge Consultants. “The individual item of clothing is in a polybag and that is really easy for a human to pick up but hard for a robot to grip properly.”

Human touch

A human-like hand would be a game changer for the automation of warehouses.

“Fruit and vegetables are easily damaged, so if we have compliant [robot] hands, the chances of them imparting damage on these objects is quite small,” says Graham Deacon, robotics research fellow at Ocado.

“If you look at the way car plants use robots to handle stuff, then you’ll see that they engineer the environment to suit the robots, so the car parts are all well constrained and presented to the robots in known positions and orientations, and if you don’t do that then the robot just won’t manage to handle it.

“So we’ve gone away from that completely, we don’t need the objects to be in precise locations, we can relax these requirements and yet still handle objects.”

Chinese eCommerce company JD.com and Amazon are also leading the way when it comes to automation of distribution centres.

JD.com has a warehouse entirely automated apart from four members of staff, and the robots can process orders at a rate of up to 200,000 products a day.

Meanwhile, Amazon has recently announced the launch of Pegasus, a new robot used in its sorting centres.

Rise of the machines

Tye Brady, chief technologist at Amazon Robotics, denies the suggestion that Amazon’s ambition is to totally replace humans in warehouses, and believes a “symphony” of humans and machines is required.

The consensus among retailers and robotics experts is humans will still be required in some capacity in warehouses, but the nature of their roles will change.

Yvonne Rogers, professor of interaction design at University College London Interaction Centre, says businesses should consider how humans can work with robots.

“Humans can be reskilled to do more types of cognitive tasks,” says Rogers.

In a blog post about the introduction of the Pegasus robots, Amazon says existing warehouse staff have been reskilled to become “flow control specialists”.

Industry group, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) remains optimistic, asserting automation will generate new roles in retail.

Technology transformation in retail has resulted in 100,000 people new jobs - ranging from social media manager to data scientist - that didn’t exist five years ago, according to the BRC.

A BRC spokesman told Essential Retail that the growth of automation will generate roles such as “machine relations managers, marketing algorithm directors and data democratisation managers”.

Economies of scale

The pace of the automation evolution will depend on the economics of the robotics technology.

Currently, human hands are still the cheapest, says George Lawrie, VP and principal analyst at Forrester Research. “Hopefully people’s wages will rise such a lot that picking will have to be automated.”

Roberts, whose company Cambridge Consultants developed Ocado’s wireless control system, believes a key driver for automation will be retailers’ difficulty in finding the staff for warehouse picking jobs.

Cambridge Consultants has been working with a retailer who is struggling to find staff for its warehouse on the west coast of America because of the cost of living in the area.

Roberts says the development of a robot hand only makes financial sense at scale and that is why it is the likes of Ocado that are leading the way.

“We are in the space where it is cutting edge and do-able but it is not off the shelf,” says Roberts. “I suspect we will get one or two big players who will develop their own system for their own use, and then you will see other systems coming in the wake of that... being available to smaller retailers.”

Once the technology is widely available it could take productivity to the next level.

“Robots replace certain jobs and tend to be a force multiplier,” says Roberts. “One thing that robots are very good at is increasing productivity.”

A JD.com spokeswoman told Essential Retail that orders fulfilled by its automated warehouses during its massive anniversary discount day on 18 June, increased 99% year-on-year.

Lawrie goes as far as likening the current innovations in retail technology to what happened to the agriculture industry in the nineteenth century with the introduction of steam threshers and other technologies.

“At the beginning of the nineteenth century a very large percentage of the people in this country were involved in producing food,” says Lawrie. “It was down to about 10% of the working population by 1900 whereas it had been up in the 60-70% range in 1800. Technology makes the people who are still there more productive.”

Roberts also says he cannot imagine a completely “human free” warehouse, but predicts the more tedious, menial and dangerous jobs will be automated.

“In the future I would like to think all of those ones can be done in an automated way, leaving humans to do those with higher skills and more decision making and flexible jobs that need to be done,” says Roberts.

Amazon says robotics will improve the lives of both staff and customer alike. What is undeniable is automation of distribution centres will accelerate rapidly as companies like Ocado introduce new tech such as the robotic hand.  

If the technology does take off in the way many anticipate,the hope is til will be a force for good rather than detrimental to the overall retail workforce.