In the wake of the ecommerce boom, never-ending supply chain disruptions, and an increased focus on reshoring efforts, warehouse automation has shifted from being a “good to have” luxury to a “must-have” requirement for companies aiming to survive in current and future business environments.
That’s according to research firm LogisticsIQ, which estimates in its latest post-pandemic market report that the Global Warehouse Automation Market will increase at a CAGR of about 14% between 2020 and 2026, reaching a value of approximately USD 30 billion by 2026. That’s up from the approximate 15 billion it was valued at in 2019.
Noting that the shift toward warehouse automation was well underway before COVID-19 hit, LogisticsIQ underscores how the pandemic changed everything and accelerated such efforts: “[the] global pandemic forced the companies to change their strategy [with respect to] warehouse automation from ‘good to have’ category to ‘must to have’ if they have to sustain in this industry. One of the learnings from the COVID-19 pandemic is that mega-trends like aging population, globalization, health & safety, mobility, green logistics, autonomous world, urbanization, individualization and digitization need to be given more consideration and weight than in the past with a long-term vision so that we are ready with any challenge.”
Predictions like these signal that the warehouse automation train has already left the station, which is a boon for proponents eager to embrace the benefits it offers.
But what about those likely to be affected most by such a shift?
How do warehouse workers feel about rising automation trends and their new robotic coworkers?
To find out, Accenture consultants followed up on a recent internal Accenture survey in which supply chain leaders cited warehouse automation as “one of their top three priorities for digital investment.”
In a series of interviews, the consultants asked individual workers for their perspectives about warehouse automation and the impact it’s having on their lives. Key themes were partly derived by conducting a sentiment analysis, which revealed a negative sentiment of about 40% and positive sentiment of about 60%. Results were published in early February in a Harvard Business Review article.
In the article, the authors outlined several “common hopes and concerns” expressed by the workers they interviewed—as well as three strategies “to help employers both address workers’ fears and build on their optimism.”
Warehouse Automation: What Workers Are Concerned About
According to the results, the workers interviewed were worried about three major issues when it comes to warehouse automation:
Losing their jobs
Having inadequate training
Dealing with “downtime or errors caused by technology malfunctions”
According to the analysis, “42% of the responses categorized by our models as ‘negative sentiment’ were related to fears around job loss.” In some cases, the concern was that robotic technologies would lead to the elimination of their specific jobs.
However, some expressed a broader concern, like this worker: “It worries me for the following generations, because they will not need us anymore…Everything will be done by robots, because [a machine] does not break its back, it is all automatic, it does not complain, and it does not strike.”
Researchers found that in addition to concerns about job loss, 35% of negative responses related to “a fear that inadequate training resources would reduce workers’ ability to succeed in a new, digital workplace.”
Some of that fear was based on the potential for employers to assume workers are more familiar and comfortable with using technology than may be the case. As one worker said, “We need to learn how to use these robots correctly, to maneuver them, because we don’t necessarily know anything more than how to drive a car.”
Lastly, researchers noted that “the remaining concerns expressed in our interviews were related to fears that if automated tools broke down, workers would have no way to fix the problem, and would thus be unable to get their work done effectively. Especially when training resources are limited, workers may feel helpless when things go wrong, unable to address or even diagnose the issue.”
As one worker explained, “while working with the automated robots, we face challenges when a part is jammed or when they can’t move. We learn about many codes only as the error happens.”
Additional Research Concurs
In a separate study, the latest American Staffing Association Workforce Monitor® online survey conducted by The Harris Poll in late October and early November 2021, similar concerns about job loss related to automation and a desire for more training were uncovered.
According to the survey, “While 80% of employed U.S. adults consider an employer’s professional development and training offerings an important consideration when accepting a new job, just 39% say their current employer is helping them improve their current skills or gain new skills to do their job better.”
According to a press release announcing the results, “The study also found concern among some U.S. workers about the effects of automation on their employability, with 37% worrying that automation will cost them their jobs. Nearly half of Hispanic/Latino employees (49%) worry that automation will eliminate their jobs, compared with 35% of Black/African-American employees and 33% of White/Caucasian employees. In addition, 52% of Millennial workers expressed worry about their job security due to automation, compared with 40% of Generation Z employees, 30% of Generation X employees, and just 20% of Baby Boomer employees.”
In the release, Richard Wahlquist, president and chief executive officer at the American Staffing Association, emphasized the need to attend to training needs as automation is integrated into the workplace: “The acceleration of automation due to the pandemic has only increased the importance of employer investments in workforce training and development.”
Warehouse Automation: What Workers Are Hopeful About
On the positive side, the workers interviewed by the Accenture consultants “expressed optimism” that warehouse automation would:
“Make their jobs safer”
“Improve the quality of their work”
Researchers found that “The number one factor driving workers’ optimism around automation (mentioned in 42% of the positive responses) was its potential to improve safety”—especially in terms of “wear-and-tear on the body.”
One worker described the improvement like this: “I used to be on sick leave several times due to severe back pain. The automated forklift truck has improved the most important aspect of my physical health.”
Another underscored the benefits of sanitation robots that provide automated cleaning and have been a big help during the pandemic: “…with just the push of a button, the cleaning robots drive around cleaning the floors and wiping everything down the whole night.”
Workers were also positive about the “increased speed and efficiency” that automation provides, with “38% of the positive responses” falling within this category.
Here are a few of the specific responses from workers:
“Robots have made the warehouse massively more efficient.”
“We’ve gained something like ten times in terms of productivity.”
“The robots easily lift several tons of cargo…[freeing up] people to do less strenuous tasks, like controlling the machines and inventory.”
According to the Accenture researchers, “the remaining 20% of positive responses focused on how support from automated tools enabled workers to do their jobs better,” including improving customer experience.
As one respondent explained, “A lot of times there can be human error in the systems. Having technologies that help to improve the quality is great.”
Additionally, responses indicated that automation added the additional benefit of enhancing motivation and engagement, as one worker noted: “[Now,] I only intervene if there is a technical problem. It makes my role more interesting and less repetitive.”
In the following video (unrelated to the study), various clients of Locus Robotics echo some of the sentiments expressed in the Accenture interviews, providing an additional glimpse into the positive impact of warehouse automation.
How Companies Can Help
As a result of the findings of their study, the Accenture consultants identified several recommended strategies for companies to better support workers as they integrate automation into their business models:
Emphasize growth opportunities. Noting that the “number one fear” expressed by workers was the fear of job loss due to automation—as well as a “hope that automation could make workers’ jobs safer and more meaningful”—Accenture says employers “must proactively expand growth opportunities” and ensure that workers “have the tools and information they need to take advantage of those opportunities.”
Get the training right. Helping workers and their supervisors gain comfort in using automated technologies means that “training programs must go beyond simple instructional videos or classroom sessions, and instead offer hands-on practice and simulations on how to operate these machines, as well as how to reset them when they malfunction.”
Keep investing in safety. Although automation tools can help to enhance safety in the workplace, continued investments in ongoing improvements is a must: “Robotic assistants can save a good deal of wear-and-tear on the human body, but they don’t solve everything. In many cases, human workers are still expected to do a lot of lifting or other strenuous tasks, and it’s up to employers to provide as safe and healthy a workplace as possible.”