Humanless warehouses: How COVID-19 has accelerated warehouse automation

Aug. 4, 2020

"Automation will play a key role in the post-pandemic workplace as warehouses begin to adjust to social distancing."

By Cory Levin, director of business development with Air Sea Containers

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way warehouses operate and, with the help of

Air Sea Containers' Cory Levins

shifting consumer preferences, will spur new opportunities for automation. Warehouses large and small are increasingly turning to automation to maintain social distancing and reduce the number of staff that have to physically come to work. Let’s explore how…

Rise of the robots

Robots are widely used to perform tasks workers can’t do at home. In South Korean facilities, for example, robots are being used to measure temperatures and administer hand sanitizer. With health experts warning that social distancing measures will need to remain in place until 2021, the trend of automating warehouses is likely to continue and accelerate.
Many logistics experts agree that automation will play a key role in the post-pandemic workplace as warehouses begin to adjust to social distancing. Fewer workers on premises mean that warehouses are reliant on automated technology to help get orders out the door.
Robot picking is three to five times more efficient than manual solutions, as robots make fewer errors and provide greater flexibility on the warehouse floor where social-distancing measures would otherwise be a hindrance.
Robotic solutions have also been put to work sanitizing warehouse facilities to eliminate the threat of COVID-19. Robots that administer chemical sprays and ultraviolet light can be used by warehouse facilities for deep-cleaning without the need for human cleaning crews.
Goods-to-person robotics minimize the contact employees have with warehouse inventory. Programmable carts can take items directly to packing stations.
Robots are becoming easier to program, even more so than some traditional automation systems, allowing warehouse facilities to better cope with demand.

New technologies in the warehouse

Amazon and Walmart  are at the forefront of warehouse automation. Amazon began automating its supply chain as early as 2014 in an effort to improve efficiency, leveraging automated packing technology and robots that perform heavy lifting and pallet-moving tasks to keep inventory moving during the pandemic.
Walmart followed suit in automating its warehouse operations in 2017, introducing automated unloading technology, robots for inventory tracking and a robotic broom that cleans warehouse floors.
Amid the pandemic, the switch to new technologies has gained speed; several smaller firms are exploring how digital innovation is changing industrial storage and how they can incorporate automated technology into their warehouse operations.
In particular, COVID-19 has accelerated the use of autonomous forklift trucks. With fewer personnel on warehouse premises and the need to maintain rigid hygiene standards, an automated forklift fitted with navigation technology enables a person to operate a forklift without physically driving it.
Software packages for smaller manufacturers have also accelerated automation in the warehouse, with self-updating cloud technologies increasingly used to manage inventory and shipping schedules without the need for human operation.
Drone usage has also increased in warehouse facilities since COVID-19 struck. While drones were on the rise as part of the push to automate warehouse operations prior to the pandemic, their use has rapidly accelerated in recent months as a means of managing inventory, transporting items in larger facilities and inspecting and surveilling warehouses.

The problem with automation

The accelerated arrival of the automated warehouse will lead to a rise in unemployment rates. According to technology experts, warehouse facilities that invest in automated technology are unlikely to rehire for a role that can be done by a robot or software.
Automated technology is initially more expensive to integrate. However, once warehouses are up and running with automated systems, they are typically more cost-effective than those reliant on human workers. The substitution of staff for automated technology allows warehouse facilities to continue meeting demand and remain operational.

Some things stay the same

Of course, some things about warehouse operations and logistics remain the same. The need for high-quality packaging products remains, as well-packaged products can help avoid supply chain disruption.

With online consumer demand growing and delivery becoming more commonplace because of the pandemic, quality packaging is in demand and can be implemented as part of an automated-warehousing process.
Robotic technology and software packages are capable of packing boxes without the need for human contact. This makes automated-packaging processes more efficient and hygienic than traditional methods, so packages can be delivered to the end customers economically and safely.

The verdict

Coronavirus has made warehouse automation a must-have in order for facilities to remain operational and meet the growing demand of customers. Delivery is central to meeting customer needs in these challenging times, so combining automation with quality shipping products and processes is more important than ever.