The Future of the Human/Machine Workforce
An article recently shared in Forbes by DTG CEO, Steve Shaheen explored the future of autonomous warehouses, or “dark warehouses,” which operate with minimal human intervention. As expressed in the article, the operative word here is minimal. As Steve outlines, there’s no doubt that robots and other automated systems will dominate the warehouse in the very foreseeable future (and in many cases today), yet they always will require humans.
According to Matthew Johnson-Roberson, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, in a Wall Street Journal article, ”there isn’t one single robot that’s so intelligent and so versatile that it’s like a human worker.”
As Steve outlines, Amazon, the benchmark for ecommerce success, may be as close as a company can get to fulfilling the dream of a dark warehouse, yet it still requires humans to be in the loop. Today, AI and robots are only as good as the data they’re trained on, which can be problematic if a barcode is torn or faded and unreadable, a product is missing from its typical location or a parcel is oddly shaped. Issues that interfere with standard processes or procedures require human logic.
There will still be a role for robots, but it will be alongside workers. In a Bloomberg article, an Amazon exec was quoted saying, “In the 10 years since we’ve introduced robotics in our facilities, we’ve added hundreds of thousands of new jobs and created more than 700 new job categories that enable our technology. Amazon employees around the world work alongside robots and will continue to do so in the future, supporting safety in our workplace and helping us better deliver for our customers.”
While Amazon is leading the pack in integrating humans and machines, many other companies are following suit. According to a study conducted by Zebra Technologies, 61 percent of decision makers plan to deliver partial automation or labor augmentation with technology in the warehouse; and three-quarters of respondents believe human interaction is part of their optimal operational balance, with 39 percent citing partial automation (some human involvement) and 34 percent citing augmentation (equipping workers with devices) as their preference.
Most warehouses and 3PL providers understand that while a completely dark warehouse may never be realistic, a darker one will be required in order to effectively compete. This darker warehouse will leverage robots, automated systems, AI and other technologies. Yet regardless of how intelligent the systems become, humans will always be in the loop to some degree. Human logic and experience simply cannot be replaced.