SUPPLY CHAIN LEADERS are worried about the state of the workforce, as they should be. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, turnover rates in manufacturing hit close to 40% in 2021 and annual warehouse turnover rates reached 49%.1 The future does not look any brighter. The next generation of workers are not interested in working in these sectors—a 2021 survey conducted by talent development platform Tallo found that only 3.5% of Generation Z respondents expressed an interest in working in manufacturing and only 2.9% expressed an interest in transportation, distribution, and logistics.2
Clearly, something has to change. Even if the millions of job openings in manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution were filled tomorrow, the ups and downs of worker retention would continue, due in large part to the kind of work that needs to be done in these operations—work that is hard on people physically and mentally. In fulfillment operations, for example, workers often spend more than 50% of their time traveling to find items that need to be picked and packaged. In assembly operations, highly repetitive tasks are hard on the human body—and mind. In the simplest terms, workers are being asked to do too much every day and, in many cases, are just walking off the job because of it.
Finding a solution that can create the stable workforce needed in operations is key, and automation can be useful in achieving that goal. That’s because today’s automation offers flexible and accessible solutions for repetitive tasks that can help workers do their jobs more safely, productively, and efficiently with less physical burden. As a result, these technologies can have a big impact on worker recruitment and retention and overall workforce stability.
Overcoming reluctance to automate
Even though supply chain leaders are quick to recognize that technology can help reduce the pain of labor uncertainty, many may still be reluctant to automate because they believe automation projects are risky, costly, and complicated.
Supply chain disruptions have far-reaching consequences for all stakeholders, including the consuming public. It is no wonder then that “playing it safe” can be deeply embedded in the psyche of supply chain leaders when it comes to operational transformations. Risk averse for good reason, supply chain leaders may be reluctant to test out a new technology that may potentially cause even more disruption. Given the ongoing uncertainty of the global economy, many cling to what they know and are steadfast in their belief that now is not the time to experiment. But uncertainty and labor challenges are exactly why every supply chain entity should move quickly to automate as many workflows, information flows, and decisions that they can.
What is behind the urgency? Consider the pressure that uncertainty and disruption places on “first-mile” and “middle-mile” workforces. For example, inventory shortages on shelves—whether real or perceived—lead to panic. This drives retailers to place inflated orders with manufacturers and distributors, hoping to prevent further shortages with safety stock. In turn, first-mile and middle-mile workers are pushed to produce more goods and fulfill more orders each day, leaving them operating at a steady state of burnout as operational demands outpace hiring. Shippers are inundated with higher package volumes that must somehow be managed without increasing air, rail, ground, or ocean capacity, and warehouse operators are forced to find more shelf space and increase throughput. These circumstances fuel the growing tension between how much workers can do safely and the continued evolution of manufacturing and logistics toward a more demand-driven model.
Automation and technology, however, can help mitigate some of that uncertainty and make it less taxing for workers to respond in fast-paced, high-pressure environments. For example, artificial intelligence (AI)-powered software can help improve demand forecasting and planning decisions as well as managing inventory allocations—both of which can reduce uncertainty. Of course, generating better forecasts may not solve all these problems, but they may help ease the constant cycle of corrections that put a crunch on workers. Meanwhile automation solutions, such as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), can help reduce the reliance on people to complete tasks that they simply are not designed to perform, such as moving a high volume of products quickly through a warehouse.
Supply chain leaders may also be reluctant to automate because they are hobbled by an understanding of automation that is decades old. They may still believe that all automation projects are large-scale, expensive, and require long consulting engagements in order to automate a single task on production and packaging lines. That perception is simply no longer true. Unlike large-scale industrial automation systems, many of today’s automation solutions:
Examples of these types of automation projects include augmented or assisted reality (AR) apps on wearables, AI-powered task management software on mobile computers, and AMRs. These technologies can be used to instantly boost the productivity and throughput of production, picking, packing, and put-away teams.
Focus on productivity
One of the main ways that automation can help address labor challenges is by making workers more productive. People get frustrated when they are not productive. By providing them with tools to improve their productivity, it is possible to improve job satisfaction and retention. According to feedback received in Zebra’s 2022 “Global Warehousing Vision Study,” 83% of associates shared that they are more likely to work for an employer that gives them modern devices to use for tasks.3
The simplest place to start using automation to improve productivity is to identify tasks that can be offloaded from people and given to automation solutions. One example is using AMRs for the movement of inbound goods, picked orders, and recycling. If people have the flexibility to stay at their workstation or zone versus wasting time walking around the factory or warehouse, they will be more focused and productive and less physically exhausted during shifts.
Two other examples of technology that can quickly boost productivity are augmented or AR apps on wearables and AI-powered task management software on mobile computers. Take for example, an e-commerce fulfillment operation that needs to maximize throughput and productivity during a peak season. Mobile computers that are equipped with task management software can boost productivity by directing warehouse workers exactly where to go next, what they need to do when they get there, and how to complete each task. Wearable devices can provide workers with visual cues about the work they need to do while freeing up their hands. Augmented reality apps can direct them up and down aisles and to the exact shelf or bin where items should be picked or put away. New workers do not have to learn the facility layout; they can just follow visual or audible cues. With technology supporting the workflow, the balance of work shifts, and the worker spends:
• 10% of their time traveling to an item's location,
• 0% of their time searching for items, and
• 90% of their time picking items, which is exactly where the focus should be.
Automation technologies are also becoming valuable recruitment and training tools for supply chain companies—especially those trying to fill seasonal jobs quickly. According to feedback received during Zebra’s latest “Global Warehousing Vision Study,” it takes approximately 4.7 weeks to train new staff to full productivity in picking, packing, loading, and cycle counts.4 For light assembly/kitting, cross docking, and order sorting, it can take even longer for new hires to achieve full productivity. Any technology that can give step-by-step guidance to an employee both visually and audibly helps expedite onboarding and time-to-productivity. In addition to the simple movement of goods and materials, advanced software gives AMRs the ability to guide workers through picklists, eliminating the need for a new hire to learn the facility layout or search for shelf locations. With solutions like these, it is possible to see workers reach full productivity in their first week on the job. In fact, one warehouse operator that employs visually impaired people found that picking productivity improved by 2.5 times after rolling out AMRs to guide workers through this workflow.5
Similarly, when AMRs move heavy carts or full bins, the risk of physical burnout is significantly reduced, which helps with recruitment and retention and provides opportunities to people who may have been previously excluded from physically demanding jobs. In this way, automation removes several prerequisites and pressures that would otherwise prevent people from working—or wanting to work.
Getting started with today’s automation
The question then is not whether to automate but where and how to get started. With all the flavors of automation on the market today, choosing the right one can feel overwhelming. In fact, while more than 80% of decision-makers who participated in the “Zebra Global Warehousing Vision Study” said they plan to rely more on automation in the future, 61% said they do not know where to start.6
Whether you are a process engineer, procurement professional, or operations manager, here are some questions to consider before beginning an automation project:
1. What do you want automation to accomplish for your operation? For example, are you trying to make jobs more accessible to more people? Or do you want to reduce the number of errors made during picking and packing by automating quality checks?
2. Where are the bottlenecks? It may be tempting to automate what you see as your most important operational piece first, but it may be more beneficial to start by addressing your biggest bottlenecks. For example, it is common for supply chain leaders to want to automate outbound operations first. Removing friction from fulfillment is the priority, they say. In reality, fast fulfillment cannot happen if materials are not off-loaded and delivered to production or forward-staging areas fast, too. In fact, the root cause of many fulfillment issues stems from a lack of digitalization and automation across inbound processes. It is also important to consider how automating certain backend information flows and decisions can help improve frontline workflows. For example, using AI to automate workforce scheduling can help ensure each shift has the right balance of people. It also gives operations managers more time to manage operations, not just labor schedules.
3. What are the urgent and long-term needs for automation? It does make sense to use automation to solve immediate challenges. These may include closing the labor gap during Q4 when holiday sales outpace hiring or bringing on a few robots to support the processing of backlogged inbound goods. But don’t lose sight of the long game. The world in which manufacturers and distributors operate is so much more dynamic with more change on the horizon. You need to think strategically about the ways in which automation can, for example, meet consumers’ ever-rising expectations for choice, cost, and delivery options, or how can it help inbound and outbound operations to scale up and down in response to disruption and uncertainty.
4. What resources are available to support solution rollouts, management, and scaling? If a company is just starting on the automation journey and doesn’t have the internal resources to run an effective implementation, one option to consider is a robot-as-a-service (RaaS) or software-as-a-service (SaaS) subscription model. These types of solutions are gaining popularity in supply chain environments, as there is no capital expenditure required to get the technology in place. This option makes rapid deployments more feasible in time-sensitive situations. In addition, the cloud-based architectures of RaaS and SaaS automation solutions allow for remote management by in-house or third-party solution providers. AMRs, for example, can be physically unboxed by warehouse or factory managers and configured by a remote workflow manager using a cloud dashboard and simple programming tools.
5. What do you need to make the implementation a success from the very start? Before the pandemic, it was rare for new hardware or software to be deployed without a proof-of-concept trial to be certain the solution would deliver results. Today, it is rare to find anyone who has time to test new technologies before they deploy them. Pilots more often occur as real-world deployments, with refinements happening in real time as feedback comes in from end-users, information technology (IT) teams, operations managers, and others. This is especially true for automation solutions, which can easily be scaled up or back given the flexibility of RaaS and SaaS models.
That does not mean that due diligence isn’t essential. Even automation technologies like AMRs that feel like plug-and-play solutions require thoughtful planning and change management efforts. The groundwork still needs to be laid, and so working with a trusted partner on the following critical phases is key:
The interlocking nature of all supply chain roles means that multiple stakeholders will be affected by the decision to automate (or to stick with the status quo). For example, every inventory movement and the technology used for that movement affects C-suite leaders, sourcing teams, planners, channel managers, logistics managers, operations managers, engineers, and of course warehouse workers. Without the perfect orchestration of information flows and workflows on the floor, it is hard for back-office and downstream decision-makers to do their jobs and keep the whole operation running with precision.
Choosing to automate workflows, information flows, and decisions—even in a small way—can help improve end-to-end supply chain operations. Using AI-based solutions to guide workers reliably to the “best next move” can shave time off every task and reduce the risk of errors. Transferring mundane, tedious tasks to robots can give employees the breathing room they need to stay focused on activities that robots cannot do.
In turn, workers are happier, customers are happier, and the toll that labor shortages take on operational stability is reduced. In these types of automated environments, even if a quarter of the workforce calls off sick, those who are on the clock can make up the difference without feeling too stressed. Technology can guide them on where to go, what to do when there, and—if asked to complete a new task—how to get it done right the first time. In this way, automation can help resolve labor, demand, and supply uncertainty and improve the speed, efficiency, and stability of today’s supply chain operations.
1. “Annual total separations rates by industry and region, not seasonally adjusted,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Economic News Release (March 10, 2022): https://www.bls.gov/news.release/jolts.t16.htm
2. “Where Does Gen Z Want to Work?” Tallo Data Insights (April 6, 2021): https://tallo.com/data-insights/tallo-data-insights-where-does-gen-z-want-to-work
5. “Austin Lighthouse Empowers Visually Impaired Workers and Doubles Picking Productivity With Mobile Robotics,” Zebra (January 2022): https://fetch3.wpenginepowered.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/fetch-austin-lighthouse-success-story-en-us.pdf
Jim Lawton is the vice president–general manager of Zebra Robotics Automation.