The Labor Challenge
The past two years have taken a toll on industries across the U.S., and supply chains have yet to see much relief. Of the many current supply chain disruptions, the shortage of available labor is proving to be one of the toughest to overcome. According to Indeed, there are more than seven million job openings in the industry, and that’s in the U.S. alone. Moreover, the current supply chain workforce is predominantly made up of boomers, who are nearing retirement (Multi Channel Merchant). With ecommerce surging, companies are exploring new warehouse technologies and innovative ways to combat the ever-increasing labor shortage problem.
The use of robots in the warehouse has been a trending topic in logistics for years now, but their deployment is finally ramping up. Robots are simplifying training processes for humans and simultaneously improving output. How? Many robots can be coded to an operator’s language of choice and are pre-programmed with knowledge of the warehouse’s pick, pack and putaway systems. The goal is for workers to stay in an assigned pick zone where they load items onto robots, which transport the items through the warehouse, effectively reducing the physical demands of warehouse work as well as the time it takes to move products within a facility. In addition to improving fulfillment speeds, robotics are proving to help with labor retention in a time when it’s crucial.
Many logistics providers are also recognizing the benefit of upgrading their technology. Productivity is hindered by static workstations and legacy hardware, and connected hands-free devices are enabling workers to perform tasks faster and more safely (for example, operating a forklift or climbing a ladder). Upgrading to a mobile-first strategy and providing untethered wearable solutions in the warehouse optimizes for both speed and efficiency, maximizing output from the available pool of workers.
Packaging automation is another solution many 3PLs are exploring. Some automated packaging lines can reduce the labor requirement in a pack out operation by an average of 88% and replace anywhere from 8-20 workers, depending on prior operational efficiency. The ROI from automated packaging solutions is not just the increase in labor productivity — by creating custom-fit parcels, companies can also reduce the cost of materials. And since carrier pricing structures now take into account package dimensions, fitting items into a perfectly compact box keeps shipping costs as low as possible. These solutions also reduce the need for void fill and save warehouse space, since storage space for standard box sizes is not necessary.
Mobile packing station
Many fulfillment operations prioritize optimized packing stations, and some are adding wheels to making their stations mobile. Instead of moving items to packing stations, why not move the packing stations to the items? Doing so allows an area of the shipping floor to be reserved for large, multi-pallet item dumps, then the packing stations are moved nearby to process and package products. Mobile packing stations are typically custom-designed with input from the merchant. As you’ve learned, there are several ways to work around labor shortages, and we expect to see more innovations as supply chains are stretched to new heights.