Last summer, EmployBridge chief work analyst Joanie Courtney noted how persistently low unemployment levels created an unusual environment for employers seeking to staff up in their warehouses ahead of the perennially hectic holiday season.
“With consumer optimism at record levels and unemployment in single-digits, employers must get aggressive and more creative in their efforts to find and maintain an adequate labor force in order to take advantage of increased consumer demands,” Courtney said.
That struggle to attract and retain warehouse talent makes one of the strongest cases for shifting fulfillment duties to automated robotic systems, according to Tompkins Robotics president Mike Futch, especially as growth in online shopping continues to outpace retail as a whole. U.S. e-commerce sales grew 12.1 percent year-over-year in Q4 2018, based on U.S. Department of Commerce and Census Bureau data released this month. That’s compared to more modest growth of 3.1 percent for all domestic retail sales over the same timeframe.
The pressure to deliver to online shoppers quickly and accurately is higher than ever, thanks to millions of customers accustomed to the speed and convenience of Amazon Prime’s customary and complimentary two-day shipping—not to mention its one-day and same-day offerings. Robotic systems “facilitate local, decentralized automation,” Futch explained, helping to level the playing field that Amazon created.
Automation in the warehouse has been around for years but the systems coming to market are becoming faster, more capable, more accurate—and more affordable. Robotics options run the gamut from transport devices and pick-and-place bots to autonomous mobile picking robots, goods-to-person systems that enable automated storage and retrieval, and sortation bots.
In February Tompkins Robotics, a unit of Raleigh, N.C.-based supply chain consulting firm Tompkins International, debuted the scalable t-Sort system that automates e-commerce fulfillment, store replenishment and other critical parcel- and unit-handling activities like fulfillment from stores, returns processing and parcel sortation.
“The days of big monument MHEs [material handling equipment] are over,” Futch said at a Retail Marketing Society event hosted by the Fashion Institute of Technology on Wednesday. In addition to the labor shortage and customers’ “I want it yesterday” mentality, warehouse operators are now building flexibility into their facilities to handle demand that waxes as holiday shopping gets underway and wanes once the calendar turns to a new year. Multipurpose facilities equipped with modular systems are the name of the game today, Futch says.
Robotics systems can augment human capacity in the warehouse and not simply replace workers. Whereas employees work in designated shifts, robots can operate around the clock, and the bots in Tompkins’ t-Sort Plus system (which handle larger capacities than the standard t-Sort device) go for up to four hours on a five- to eight-minute battery charge. The bots traverse a rectangular sortation track made up of a series of tables that fit together like Legos, ferrying items picked by robotic arms to human workers and following the shortest available path. Much like a household Roomba, the bots detect when their batteries are running low and plug themselves in automatically for a recharge.
Tompkins Robotics customers have achieved ROI on their deployments in as little as 2.5 months, though some have waited two years to see those financial results. While all of Tompkins Robotics customers today fall under the retail and e-commerce umbrella, wholesalers, consumer products companies, manufacturers and third-party logistics providers have expressed interest. “Quite a few are asking questions and starting to think that maybe they should get into this,” Futch said.
To date, the company’s largest deployment employs 350 robots to process 18,000 units per hour while the smallest requires 20 robots handling 2,000 units hourly, Futch pointed out. Combating the notion that technology deployments are only for the largest, deep-pocketed firms, Futch said, “We have smaller companies looking at this now.”
When a business is growing faster than it can hire, finds its piece handling needs increase significant and sells products that automation can handle properly, it’s time to consider upgrading to robotics system, Futch explained.
“Fixed, expensive systems are no longer an option in today’s fast-paced environment,” Futch said.