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Supply Chain News: Research Says Impact of DC Robots on Job Numbers will be Modest over Next Decade, but Drive "De-Skilling" of Warehouse Work

 

Scrutiny of DC Workers Activity also Likely to become "Relentless"

Jan. 2, 2020
SCDigest Editorial Staff
     

Robots of all sorts are being deployed in distribution centers across the world, including AGV-like autonomous mobile robots, piece and case picking robots, and more.

As with many other areas of business, there are concerns in some quarters about the impact growing robot adoption will have on warehouse workers and jobs, with some warning we will soon see "lights out" distribution centers that rely almost totally on automation.

Supply Chain Digest Says...

 

The report says the growing impacts of automation on warehouse workers needs to be viewed from a more Corporate Social Responsibility-like perspective.


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Recently, Beth Gutelius and Nik Theodore of the University of Illinois at Chicago, in research sponsored by UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education and Working Partnerships USA, take a different and in-depth look at how the robot invasion will play out for workers beyond just estimations often seen on potential job losses.

The findings in the report were based on in-depth industry research and extensive interviews with a broad set of stakeholders, including industry analysts and consultants, third-party logistics (3PL) operators, retailers, brand companies, and technology providers.

The report notes that there are many factors beyond labor cost reduction that are driving companies to consider DC robotics. Those include tight labor markets, rising real estate costs, and increasing need for faster deliveries.

On the other hand, variability and unpredictability that come with distribution, outsourcing dynamics, inertia, and the state of technological innovation are factors that may slow the progress of robot adoption.

With that context, the research says it expects the pace of adoption of new robotic technologies will vary dramatically across companies, based on corporate cultures and views of automation, volumes of goods handled, order profiles, and product characteristics.

Interestingly, the report notes that its research "documented that even firms at or near the leading edge of innovation in one area often lag behind in other areas."

It cites one example in which a large parcel company had made significant investments in a high speed conveyor sortation system and other technologies but still had managers using spreadsheets and a whiteboard to schedule workers across processing areas.

Impact of Robotics on DC Workers

The report has several key findings on the likely impact of robotics on DC workers. Those include:

New technologies are likely to lead to work intensification: The report says its research suggests that even though some technologies could alleviate the most arduous tasks of warehouse work (such as heavy lifting), this likely will be coupled with attempts to increase the workload and pace of work without automaton, with new methods of monitoring workers.

 

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It cites Amazon, which has introduced something called MissionRacer, a video game that pits workers against one another to pick customer orders fastest.

 

The report adds that "The increasing pace of work in warehouses may introduce new health and safety hazards, as well as increased employee turnover due to overwork and burnout. Currently, warehouse workers experience work-related injuries at a rate nearly twice that of other private industry workers - higher than construction, coal mining, and most manufacturing industries."

New technologies have the potential to de-skill some jobs: The report notes that some warehouse technologies are designed to simplify aspects of warehouse work by breaking a job into subtasks and, where possible, removing the skills required of the workforce. It projects that across all occupations in warehouses, viable technologies are likely to replace some human-performed decision-making tasks with machines, significantly changing the composition and quality of jobs.

The report finds that "In some cases, the de-skilling appears to be motivated by a desire to shift labor strategy, including expanding the size of the potential labor market, increasing the use of temporary workers, reducing the workforce in certain occupations, and enhancing worker productivity."

It also notes that training workers to perform higher-skilled tasks is one potential avenue for adaptating to technological change, but says this strategy appears to be underutilized in warehousing. Instead, labor reallocation likely will dominate in the short and medium term, supported by processes of de-skilling and work intensification. For example, the Kiva robotic picking system now at Amazon simplifies the role of humans in picking, thereby reducing training and skill requirements, and making it easier for companies to hire temporary labor rather than direct employees.

New technologies are poised to transform how workers are managed: The report notes that what it calls "algorithmic management" introduces new forms of workplace control, where the technological regulation of workers’ performance is "granular, scalable, and relentless."

It adds that newly available devices - such as "wearable" warehouse technologies, autonomous mobile robots, and increasingly sophisticated labor management software - allow close tracking of workers’ movements, including walk speed, routes, bottlenecks, and break time. (SCDigest notes Labor Management Systems in many DCs have been doing much of this for three decades.)

"These technologies have the potential to improve efficiency by urging workers to increase speed and accuracy," the report says, adding that "These same technologies also can function as a form of surveillance over workers, reducing the little autonomy they already have and further intensifying the pace of their work."

In the short to medium term, new technologies likely will not cause widespread job losses: The report concludes that with continued growth in demand, aggregate employment levels in the US warehousing industry will likely continue to rise over the next five to 10 years. However, the impact on some specific distribution tasks that are easy to automate are likely to be significant.

In conclusion, the report says the growing impacts of automation on warehouse workers needs to be viewed from a more Corporate Social Responsibility-like perspective.

"The warehousing industry could realize significant operational improvements through technological advances - and it is imperative that productivity gains be shared, that workers be involved in identifying which efficiencies should be prioritized and what hazards are being introduced, and that experimentation unfolds with regard for more than just productivity increases and cost-cutting," the authors say.

Absent this, the process of technological change in warehousing likely will resemble a win-lose proposition, where the short-term benefits are captured by the industry and the long-run costs are borne by workers.

The full report can be downloaded here: The Future of Warehouse Work: Technological Change in the US Logistics Industry

Any reaction to this research? How do you think robots taking DC jobs will play out? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.


 
 

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