The holiday season is just around the corner and peak periods are quickly approaching fulfillment centers across the country bringing with them new and unique challenges. Many warehouse managers will be resorting to the usual solutions such as hiring seasonal labor, running their facilities for longer hours, and/or having their associates work additional shifts. But in 2020, the holiday season comes with an obvious twist, COVID-19. Retail trends do not look the same anymore and most retailers are already seeing unprecedented surges in their online sales since March. With their supply chains already under pressure and warehouses exceeding capacity, planning this season is more hectic than ever driving the need for new and innovative ways to scale fulfillment operations to meet peak sales in the final quarter of 2020.
Peak Season Considerations
Per an article in Supply Chain Dive, DHL Supply Chain plans to hire 7,000 associates through the end of 2020 of which 6,000 of the seasonal jobs will be in e-commerce fulfillment. In the past few years, the struggles of attracting and retaining a qualified hourly workforce have been increasing for distribution centers and warehouses. In 2019, unemployment rates hit a record low of 3.7% making the pool of seasonal workers to pick from slimmer and putting organizations in a crunch as they tried to fill temporary roles. This year, because of the pandemic, we can expect unemployment rates to swing, but there are additional challenges regarding safety and working conditions that cannot be ignored. Hiring seasonal workers to deal with increased volumes only seems like a suboptimal solution especially since it involves days of training, paying signing bonuses and higher wages to associates who will leave after a brief period. DCs located in areas of lower population density, often in proximity of competitors, struggle with finding associates due to increased competition for labor which further drives higher wages.
Robotics and automation can help compete effectively and give flexibility to service seasonal peaks – without adding/changing the current workforce. Collaborative robots, known as cobots, can help handle the increase in volume while maintaining safety protocols and collaborating with existing associates. Researchers have established that robot-human teams are about 85 percent more productive than either alone. Cobots are designed to assist human employees as they perform various warehouse activities and can also be programmed on the fly to accommodate shifting priorities within the warehouse allowing them to handle more tasks. Another potential solution are the goods-to-person technologies from companies like CarryPick and AutoStore Systems which reduce or eliminate the travel time required to pick products. With the substantially reduced travel time during picks, the associates can focus on other tasks they need to fulfill. It is important to note that automation is here to supplement the workforce and not replace them. The training required for associates to work with newer technology although time consuming initially, will be worth it in the long run with the increased accuracy and saved productivity.
The challenges with hiring seasonal workforce lie not only in finding qualified personnel but also training them to meet high standard performance goals during peak season. A well-coordinated and cautious facility-wide training procedure must be established to create a safe work environment for the new hires. Additional efforts like prescreening after selection and initial close monitoring of temporary hires to ensure satisfactory performance are required as well. Therefore, identifying, processing, and training new temporary hires for specific job functions is very time-consuming, expensive, and taxing.
Robotics and automation can help reduce these training efforts. Training to work with bots can be quicker and associates can work alongside automated environments. There are other scalable solutions offered like RaaS (Robotics as a Service) which allow facilities to scale by adding bots at peak. These services are offered on a subscription basis with customers paying monthly fees instead of buying their robots outright. The technical setup process for additional bots is easier than training human hires to work with equipment.
Due to the seasonal surge in volume, many facilities run out of available warehouse spaces and efficient storage and retrieval becomes a major obstacle. Additionally, there are times when warehouses are not architecturally designed to accommodate the number of associates for a given process step which causes an inherent bottleneck. Despite the addition of excess associates, the system can only allow the throughput of so much product. Now spatial concerns involve associates within 6-feet of each other or touching the same products or tools which can transmit COVID. If an associate does test positive at a warehouse, the facility needs to be shut down, sanitized, and needs to contact trace all employees. COVID is not only a major health concern but also handling the aftermath is drastically expensive, work intensive and time-consuming. Adding more robots in your process can alleviate some stress and provide more flexibility. Considering that robots cannot contract the virus themselves, inserting them intermittently throughout the warehouse processes can create the safe social distance that associates need.
Deploying goods-to-person technologies including ASRSs, robots and order picking stations can further address spatial constraints by increasing the total throughput of a warehouse. GreyOrange’s AI-based robotics – Flexo modular sortation system that executes tasks at high speeds is one example. It can easily be scaled up to handle the large influx of volume during peak with faster deployment and modular components that can be turned off when ramping down use. In the long run, automated technology can be used to better utilize existing warehouse space and scale efficiently during peak season and beyond.
Meet this Peak Season’s Goals
If you are considering robots for your peak season, then you will need a plan to integrate them into your current systems and processes and to understand your timeline. Deployment speeds of robots are dependent on the size and extensibility of the hardware. Based on our past success and industry knowledge, robots can be deployed and start delivering output in as fast as a couple of weeks. The deployment times of the robots or cobots require strategic scheduling to allow associates comfortable entry into the peak season with sufficient training of the correlating software. This training is comparable to the training that would be required for the seasonal workforce in cost and time. Therefore, robots/cobots can serve as a satisfactory solution when handling seasonal demands this holiday season!
Here at Bricz, we evaluate your warehouse operation needs to determine the best robot solution fit. Looking to discover or implement warehouse robotics before peak? Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to get started!
Contributors: Matthew Segars, Supply Chain Consultant at Bricz
Aanchal Narula, Supply Chain Consultant at Bricz