This is not a new topic by any means.  Retailer, wholesalers, and distributors have been using computer systems to assist in inventory and supply chain management since the technology was originally invented.  It has always been a balancing act of the cost/benefit and how effective and efficient the technology can be in order to be implemented.  And this is true in all decision making processes, not just inventory management.  But we have reached a crossroad where major robotic advancement specific to inventory management is now available, accurate, and cost effective.

Let’s Go Back in Time

Less than a decade ago, in 2009, Amazon already had begun shaping the warehouse world when they leveraged technology to create the Kiva robot. At the time, industry reports called the breakthrough a picture of what was to come…in 2025.

Those predictions were just slightly off. In fact, the real numbers show that, just seven years later, by 2016 Amazon alone had an estimated 30,000 robots in their facilities. Smart, mobile automation is not our future -it is our present – and best of all, it is bringing major changes to factories and warehouses, increasing the potential for United States businesses’ global competitiveness. The jump in e-commerce has only helped to speed up the demand for more efficient, automated processes.  And now current estimates place the number of robots (the representatives of the fourth industrial revolution!) at 1.3 million globally. 

What is the Role of Robotics?

One of the key pillars of an efficient manufacturing or warehousing operation today is the use of computerized systems that provide owners and senior managers with economies of scale, the ability to operate across much larger sites with leaner and more flexible practices and, at the same time, enabling control of their labor costs. All of these critical best practices can be accomplished by the increased use of technology, which is quickly gaining momentum for improved warehouse management and manufacturing fulfillment. 

Many companies are now implementing different types of computerized inventory management robots for different functions.  As mentioned above, the Kiva robot, used by Amazon, is a “floor based” robot system that identifies, moves, and picks inventory for distribution based on orders.  Walmart is rolling out shelf-scanning robots (a 2 foot robot with a tower fitted with cameras) to check stock levels, incorrect pricing, and misplaced items by scanning aisles.  Additionally, several companies are now also using flying drones in their warehouses for tracking and counting inventory for real time data transmission.  These drones fly autonomously, understand their surroundings, and can identify all inventory by optically reading bar codes. 

The down side to the evolution of robotic technology is that the shift to robots will change the way businesses hire employees. Highly skilled laborers and thought leaders will be in more demand while those who perform lower level, basic operations will find themselves replaced by robots over time. An educated work force will add value for the companies, as they will be charged with pushing innovative changes, identifying new challenges, becoming problem solvers and increasing profits.

Conclusion

Given the exponential rate of change, manufacturers and distributors must be prepared to move to the embrace technology, implementing change across their organizations in order to enhance competencies, productivity and competitiveness.  Despite the short term downside of loss of lower level jobs, the industries will be expected to focus on the ability to create better, more challenging and higher paying jobs while also targeting continuous improvements through the execution of computerized robotic systems and beyond.   

Watch for additional updates on the changing face of manufacturing and warehousing!