This article was written by Jake Rheude, Director of Marketing at Red Stag Fulfillment.
Predicting the future is oftentimes no more than educated guesswork. It’s hard to visualize events and innovations that simply haven’t come to pass.
That’s why predictions from decades ago of what life in the 21st century would be like we’re usually wrong, hilariously so.
Humans have a track record of eyeing innovations with a bit of suspicion. Everything from the steam engine to the Internet (“how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the Internet does in a month?” – Newsweek, 1995) has at one time or another been derided with skepticism. What has emerged from so many innovations in the past hundred years, however, is anything but the rampant job losses and unrest predicted by the automation Cassandras.
Yes, automation destroys jobs; it changes the nature of industries and sometimes erases them. But it also creates new ones. It presents an opportunity for workers to step up and learn a new skill while saving the body from physically taxing labor. For the business owner who wants to see a return on their investment, automation helps consolidate payroll costs and promotes employee retention because it improves the wellbeing of workers. Instead of paying 4 workers $15/hr each to do a series of complex tasks, an owner buys a machine that does most of those tasks. He lays off two of the workers, but keeps two to operate the machine and gives them a raise to reflect their increased skill level.
Then there’s this question: Would a warehouse worker in Michigan rather carry boxes ten feet from a loading bay onto a delivery truck, or control a computer-guided convey belt that does it for him? I intentionally use the word “control” because this scenario — a worker controlling a machine rather than being replaced by it — is oftentimes what happens when automation is introduced to a workplace. In the field of logistics, we see automation and artificial intelligence as enhancers to work that will still be done by humans for decades to come. Automation starts at the front end, with ecommerce platforms linking directly to inventory management software that tracks stock in a company’s warehouse. On the back end of things, instruments such as robotic arms or intricate RFID conveyor belt systems transport boxes of products stored forty feet above a warehouse floor and move them into loading bays.
To better illustrate how automation can fit neatly into the system, let’s say you own an ecommerce business that sells cat treats and toys. Nancy from Nebraska buys a couple packages of your Salmon treats for her pet Siamese. What happens if your estore runs on Magento but the inventory management system in your warehouse full of cat paraphernalia doesn’t have a proper sort of integration? That would be a nightmare of out of stock notices, delayed orders, and a very unhappy customer waiting to feed her kitty in Nebraska. So you use an omnichannel customer dashboard to seamlessly integrate your ecommerce store with the supply of treats and toys at your fulfillment warehouse or with your fulfillment provider.
Adopting an omnichannel software to grease the wheels of your operation frees up valuable time for your head of sales (which, let’s face it, could be you) to focus on more important tasks such as optimizing your product descriptions or reaching out to influencers in your niche. That doesn’t mean you’re rendering you or your sales team useless, it just means that a software program is picking up the slack. On the back end, instead of sore muscles and strained backs, a fully automated or augmented warehouse transportation network does the same thing for warehouse workers. GPS trackers give detailed navigation instructions to workers to minimize the number of steps they take to get from picking various products off shelves to packing them into boxes. Box packing software calculates the optimal size for packaging to minimize wasted space — and more importantly, higher dimensional weight shipping costs. Robotic arms that pick up boxes save a worker hundreds of heavy motions per day. Conveyor belts achieve distances that number into the hundreds of miles over time. Automation on the back end of the supply chain ultimately leads to the following outcomes:
1) Time saved by maximizing movements and workflow of everything from warehouse employees to trucking routes.
2) Employee-related costs saved by minimizing occurrence of workplace injuries and accidents. This comes in the form of lower health insurance premiums and accident premiums.
3) Customer-related costs saved by minimizing delayed shipments and mispicks that come from human error
When we look to the future, it’s instructive to think a little bit more closely at the benefits we can gain from automation before we declare it to be a blanket threat. The bottom line is that if you give automation a chance to make business easier, it will not only reward you with better margins, but it will make logistics jobs better too.
Jake Rheude is the Director of Marketing for Red Stag Fulfillment, an ecommerce order fulfillment provider with warehouses across the United States. Red Stag Fulfillment was born out of a successful ecommerce store when two entrepreneurs couldn’t find a high-quality fulfillment partner to handle the company’s growth. By taking an innovative approach to how an ecommerce fulfillment service should operate, Red Stag was born to meet the needs of other online stores aiming for world-class levels of customer satisfaction and retention