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People Are at the Center of the Robotics Revolution

Automation not only delivers ROI, it enhances supply chain jobs and increases worker satisfaction.

By Fiona Soltes

A variety of factors are converging to bolster the ROI for automation. Beyond the present and future state of the workforce, the ever-increasing technological sophistication, and the growing understanding that supply chain operations must be faster, more efficient, more accurate and more transparent than ever, there’s this sizable “direct-to-consumer” shift. Demand has moved from handling larger pallets and cases to smaller and more frequent orders or “eaches” and automation makes this shift much easier to manage.

It’s no longer just B2C or B2B. As one industry veteran, Jim Tompkins, Ph.D., so appropriately terms it, it’s “B2Me,” where “me” could be a business or consumer. “In fact,” said Tompkins, chairman and CEO of both MHI member Tompkins International and the MonarchFX Alliance, “many of the product categories that once were B2B have become B2C, and vice versa. For the most part, B2B and B2C have become one.”

As automation and robotics offer opportunities to for firms to catch up—and to get ahead—some worry about the impact on jobs.

“Fears are being stoked among the workforce about robots taking jobs,” said Melonee Wise, CEO of MHI member Fetch Robotics, which builds robot systems for the logistics industry. “The reality is that robots take over tasks, and usually the worst tasks. Robotics has traditionally been designed to handle tasks that are dirty, dangerous or dull. While workers may have some initial trepidation when a Fetch robot is deployed at their location, as those robots start to take over the dull, dangerous and dirty tasks, those employees are happy to have them work alongside.”

Because of the state of the workforce, Wise said, warehouses and logistics “simply can’t afford to wait.” She quotes the 2017 MHI Annual Industry Report to make her point: “The top challenge in the supply chain is ‘hiring and retaining a skilled workforce,’ at 63 percent of those surveyed; second is ‘customer demand for faster response times’ at 55 percent. And the same report points to robotics and automation as the top ‘trend of innovations being disruptive or a source of competitive advantage.’ These statistics point to an industry that is in desperate need of labor and at a technology that is in a position to alleviate that problem.”

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According to the recently released 2018 MHI Annual Industry Report, “Overcoming Barriers to NextGen Supply Chain Adoption,” eight out of ten survey respondents believe these supply chains will be the predominant model within just five years. However, the report found that the adoption of some of these technologies was slower than originally reported when MHI started the annual report in 2014. The report cites three top barriers to adoption of these technologies: 1. Making the business case for NextGen supply chain investments. 2. Tackling the supply chain skills gap and workforce shortage. 3. Building trust and security in digital, always-on supply chains. This issue of MHI Solutions focuses on the adoption of these digital solutions, from best practices in robotics and artificial intelligence to blockchain and innovations in last mile delivery.

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