The hype around automation

· logistics and systems

There’s a lot of hype around automation these days, everyone seems to be offering faster this and lower that, all for the simple cost of implementing robotic automation. The problem is that a lot of the front-line customers which could be using this kind of technology, don’t have the means to. It might be too expensive a business case, it might take operations offline for too long. Or it might be – and this is the one I want to focus on – maybe people just don’t understand how automation works for them?

First off, I don’t claim to be an expert, implementing robots is not something I’ve done (yet). But I do think automation is the future of supply chain. Not even the future, automation is happening now, it’s already a thing. Could you imagine running a warehouse which functioned predictably, kept things computer precise and could run non-stop without having to pay for over time? Plus, the advantage of not needing to deal with pyramid picking or handover dramas between shifts… All of this is possible with robotic automation.

Going back to the example we used last time, you’re an importer of goods which stores products in a warehouse before sending items out to customers. The process is as follows: a truck arrives, gets checked, unloaded, checked again, and then put away. After that an order comes in; you pick it, pack it, invoice, book transport, and dispatch the product. As a starting, in this example, you could put a robotic forklift at the putaway step, feeding your robotic forky – let’s call him Steve – a pallet which Steven then takes and puts it into a warehouse location (the same way every single time).

Truthfully though, right now the investment doesn’t stack up, Steve is just too expensive for gains which are too marginal. Why pay for something which is more complicated and more expensive to maintain, when you can hire more casuals and buy a second-hand fork which you know how to use. Sure automation allows you to scale your operations, but right now, the business case just doesn’t add up. For a small to the medium-sized operator, I can understand the hesitation to invest big for a marginal gain, that’s something big companies with lots of spare cash can do.

The best thing for SME logistics operators to do right now is to wait for the technology cost to come down and to prepare. Regardless of your business being capable of putting robots in now or down the track. Knowing what you do and how you do it is a big step in knowing what you want to do next. Once you have understanding, you have the context you need to plan, source, and implement an innovation which works for you (which might just be a fleet of robotic forklifts, feel free to call them Steve).

So, start with the basics like a process map, then break it down and see if you can glean your mystery into a method. This, in context, is the first brick on the road to automation.

I’m saying all of this stuff because that’s the point of Krys Carter, to equip people with tools to understand and implement cool new things - for a purpose. Because these technologies exist for a reason – they are a better way of doing things - but keeping this kind of efficiency and innovation in the hands of a few is not going to help the industry as a whole.

What about robots taking my job and killing everyone like in Terminator?

Jobs are changing from being mind-numbingly boring to creative and non-linear. Which is great, do you know how boring it is to do put aways? Because I do. Very super extremely boring. So boring that after you master them, your mind goes into a sort of auto-pilot following a pre-determined sequence while your soul slowly shrinks from the boredom. Man is not meant to do put-aways. What we are meant to do is create things, so as much as new jobs might not be as physically simple as they have been so far. Keep in mind that for every smart robot, there is an engineer, a manufacturer, a designer, a marketer, a programmer, and a maintenance person in the ecosystem. Just to name a few.

Think about it this way, it took imagination to bring an idea such automated forklifts to life, that same kind of imaginative thinking is going to be needed in order to spread innovation throughout an entire industry. Where the challenges are unique in every setting. The job will shift from doing the work with your hands to doing the work with your head, helping companies to automate an industry at scale.