Robots no longer belong to the future or sci-fi films. Instead, they are fast becoming an essential part of modern industry; showing particular promise in supply chains and warehouse management. A recent Gartner report highlighted that robots used to replenish retail stores demonstrate quantifiable improvements to efficiency in 72% of use cases – the highest percentage of any sector or industry.
Clearly, retailers have the most to gain from automating their supply chains, yet currently, a massive 80% of warehouses lack automation, with only 5% adopting sophisticated automation technology and solutions over the last decade. This is not good enough, especially during a period of recession, slowing consumer confidence, and ever-increasing commercial property prices
The initial thought associated with warehouse robots is a loss of human jobs, but this is not the case. Robots and technology in contemporary warehouse settings enable organisations, particularly in the retail sector, to elevate human staff to new levels of importance.
So, what is the big deal, why should retail be automating with robotic warehouse solutions?
Filling labour shortages
The warehouse industry is suffering from mass labour shortages and staff retention issues. With a 49% turnover rate in the sector last year alone, organisations face a significant challenge when attracting and retaining talent. For example, Amazon suffered greatly in 2021, retaining just one in three employees for more than 90 days after being hired, costing the company an estimated $8 billion.
Employing robotic solutions can solve this issue, as it leaves the less desirable and more labour-intensive tasks to automated robots while effortlessly keeping up with shifting consumer and economic demands on retailers and their warehouses. Subsequently, people then work hand-in-hand with robots, making jobs less physically demanding and more secure.
Shockingly, the majority of organisations could run out of people to hire in their warehouses by 2024 – a terrifying statistic, particularly for the big players that are relied on by so many consumers.
Retailers need stability during the golden quarter
Christmas and Black Friday are the busiest times for retailers. Picking robots can speed up processes during busy periods – retrieving products and bringing them to picking stations faster than humans can. Extra robots can simply be added when demand picks up and removed once things quieten down again. This means seasonal workers will be a thing of the past, eliminating wasted time and resources spent on training.
Boots and John Lewis have recently announced that they plan to hire 10,000 temporary workers for the Christmas period, offering higher pay and other perks to retain staff. Boots is offering staff 45% off own brand products, while John Lewis is offering free meals. It is alarming that organisations rely on outlandish offers to attract new staff.
The introduction of robots would remove the need for temporary staff as they are faster and more efficient than humans reducing delays during busy periods, improving supply chain stability and ultimately, the chances of everyone’s Christmas presents being in stock or arriving on time.
Making the most of the space
The short supply and high cost of land is impacting retailers who wish to expand their facilities to match consumer demand and keep shelves stocked. Building new warehouses is extremely expensive, so integrating robots that make the very most of existing space makes sense. This is especially true during periods of economic instability when companies don’t want to invest in new commercial properties.
Moreover, when companies are considering their Environmental Social Governance (ESG) responsibilities and are looking to reduce their environmental impact, maximising the existing space is preferred over building and powering new properties.
Warehouse work is often fraught with risk. According to the British Safety Council, 1,300 UK people are hospitalised yearly with serious injuries following forklift accidents.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reports that handling, lifting or carrying goods accounts for 20% of non-fatal injuries in the workplace. These injuries can range from fractures, dislocations, and broken bones to life-changing amputations and health conditions, especially during periods of high demand when warehouse management may demand too much of their workers. This includes Amazon, which has been in the news for unfair and unsustainable working practices.
Robotic picking systems retrieve products quickly and efficiently even if they are stored on racks many metres above the ground – a job unnecessarily dangerous for people.
The energy crisis is here to stay
With the threat of a recession looming and energy costs at record highs, the retail sector needs automation to reduce costs and fill gaps in industries with a shortage of workers. According to Thomas Genestar, Managing Direct of Exotec in Western Europe, Robotic solutions can reduce a warehouse’s electricity consumption by three to five times. Shockingly, around the world, a staggering 13% of carbon emissions in logistics come from warehouse buildings. Working non-stop and operating at a high speed, robots can help increase the production rate, reducing standby time and conserving energy.
Increasing warehouse automation can help, but it is not a cure-all. State and business policy will need to be dramatically reformed to stay efficient, productive, and environmentally sustainable.
Embrace the robotics revolution
Moving forward, we should expect to see robots integrated into entire production chains. Robotics can easily tackle the more mundane and repetitive tasks, supporting businesses to become more productive and efficient while creating better paid, less demanding technical jobs for people.
Time, money, people and space are crucial considerations for any retail business in 2022 and beyond, and automated solutions such as warehouse robots are key to maximising all four.