Consumer behavior has been evolving over time, but never has it changed so rapidly in such a short period as it did in 2020. COVID-19 almost single-handedly forced consumers to embrace online shopping, as many physical stores shut down or reduced hours to comply with COVID-19 mandates. Consumers turned to online retailers for everything from toilet paper and groceries to toys and books. People also started placing a larger number of smaller orders, all while continuing to expect to get items cheaper and faster than ever.
Even as some pandemic-related restrictions and challenges appeared to ease last fall, consumers continued online shopping, beginning their holiday gift buying earlier, extending the holiday shopping season longer than ever. COVID-19-related shifts in buying behavior translated into an additional $41.54 billion in digital revenue for November-December. The result was a near-permanent period of seasonal surge that has put incredible pressure on an already strained supply chain.
These shifts in consumer habits will continue to place enormous pressure on companies' supply chains to not only keep up with the overwhelming consumer demand, but also to maintain operations while keeping employees safe. Automation is one critical solution that has helped the retail industry address today’s challenges by improving safety and optimizing efficiency in warehouses.
With social distancing measures and public health guidelines in place, businesses must re-evaluate their practices to ensure worker safety is a top priority.
Automated material handling solutions are highly effective in supporting social distancing guidelines and increasing worker safety. These solutions reduce unnecessary human touchpoints with materials and direct contact between workers, as employees handle and transport goods throughout a facility. For example, at one customer site, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) led to a 50 percent reduction in human-touched materials over the course of one shift by automating payload exchanges. Additionally, these automated solutions allowed for a 100 percent decrease in direct contact between associates working in different functional areas.
Automating material flow reduces the need for humans to move throughout the warehouse, reduces all-too-frequent forklift injuries, and limits human interactions, further reducing the entire staff’s risk of exposure.
Traditionally, seasonal workers have helped bridge the gap between existing employees and keeping up with heightened demand levels during peak periods. However, hiring takes a lot of time, is costly, and comes with great risks, particularly in today’s era of social distancing. Finding and retaining warehouse personnel is difficult and expensive, and it's inefficient for businesses to spend time and resources training workers who will not be with the company long term.
By deploying mobile automation solutions, like AMRs, to carry out routine, repetitive and manual tasks, existing employees are freed up to focus on higher-value initiatives. AMRs can handle time-consuming tasks like transporting materials for cross-docking, zoned putaway, and delivery to outbound. By automating these duties, existing employees can spend their time focused on more cognitive tasks. Automation improves operational efficiency and also helps close the labor gap when it comes to finding employees with the right skill sets.
Fortunately, the technology around AMRs is also advancing rapidly. One key focus is around perception. New robots are becoming much more sophisticated with human-like sense of three-dimensional space, enabling them to operate more reliably and safely around employees while accomplishing more tasks. Flexible automated solutions allow companies to optimize their material flow by quickly and easily making changes to meet evolving needs without sacrificing downtime. This can include redeploying vehicles to a different shift, task or facility.
Overwhelming consumer demand is likely to continue even after the pandemic. By helping organizations adapt to operational demands and evolving workflows, automated solutions streamline and optimize logistics operations, allowing inventory to be moved faster and orders fulfilled more quickly. Further, working in unison, humans and automated solutions can accomplish more in a day, boosting overall productivity and improving efficiency. This increase in productivity and output is critical to overcoming the new normal of permanent peak pressures, meeting demand, and driving down costs while improving margins. These technology developments are going to drive accelerated adoption of automation solutions that can help companies boost efficiency, remain competitive and, most importantly, keep their employees safe.
August Drake is the director of application engineering at Seegrid, a leading provider of autonomous mobile robots and enterprise software for material handling.
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August Drake is Seegrid’s Director of Application Engineering. In this role, she leads a team of application engineers who assist in strategizing, designing, and implementing automation solutions across Seegrid's customer base. August and her team combine industrial, manufacturing, and engineering backgrounds with extensive experience, working with some of the world’s largest leading brands. Previously, August served nearly six years as a project engineer at GENCO (now FedEx Supply Chain), where she was responsible for designing warehouse layouts and processes for key logistics and e-commerce customers. August holds a BS in Industrial Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh.