Robots to the Rescue

COVID-19 has transformed the way we conduct our daily lives and with this, the use of robotics has expanded beyond the walls of warehouses and distribution centres (DCs).

Due to advances in technology, we’re now seeing robots delivering at the last mile to get orders to consumers without compromising health and safety. With restaurant and convenience store orders already being delivered by robots[1] in some parts of the UK, how can other retailers and sectors adopt this level of automation too?

Robotics in supply chains

The use of robotics and automation technology in warehouses or DCs certainly isn’t new. Retailers across the globe have been perfecting the balance of man (and woman) and machine for some time to increase efficiencies, reduce errors and make this particular part of the supply chain seamless.

In fact, the use of robotics has grown exponentially over time from the first introduction of this technology in the automobile plant industry.[2] Now, a wide range of factories, laboratories, warehouses, energy plants, hospitals and other industries are reliant on robotics and automation.

Today’s warehouses and DCs need to ensure flexibility, scalability and reduced reliance on temporary or unreliable labour pools to meet their operational requirements (especially when ecommerce demand is so high) and introducing automation and robotics is the perfect way to achieve that.

With the use of robotics and automated processes within warehouses and DCs, retailers can process ecommerce orders far more quickly and safely, rather than relying purely on manual pickers. By strategically implementing automation and robotics, supply chains can work around the clock without having to delay deliveries, while still staying true to customer expectations.

Within a warehouse, however, it is still necessary to complement automation with human employees to perform certain tasks that robots are simply not yet able to do.

Move further along the supply chain, to the delivery end and it’s a different picture, with last mile delivery having been transformed in the last five years. The question is, should warehouses follow the lead? Is now the time for lessons to be passed back through the supply chain and for retailers to use more ‘machine’ than ‘man’ to ensure employee safety and operational efficiency?

Beyond the warehouse

Acknowledging the benefits of robotics and automation technology within the warehouse, many retailers are now starting to consider how this technology can be used within their stores and beyond. In particular, robots have been used in the recent months as a completely contactless-free delivery method to ensure local communities and vulnerable people are still able to get goods delivered to their door.

Certainly, at the moment, removing ‘man’ element from the whole man and machine equation is one way to keep consumers and employees safe and it has given retailers a glimpse at what the future of delivery might look like. But is this a sustainable method for retailers? And will we see an expanded uptake of this beyond local areas or the supermarket sector?

A personal touch

COVID-19 has accelerated questions around the use of robotics and automation, and shone a spotlight on existing businesses and retail models. As retailers begin to introduce further automation into their supply chains and (increasingly) beyond, the million-dollar question is this: will retail more generally embrace robotics and automation on a wider scale post COVID-19?

Ultimately, supply chains are fuelled by people and a human touch will always be required. However, as technology becomes more sophisticated and consumer habits and business practices to evolve, only time will tell how intrinsic robotics and automation will become beyond the warehouse environment.




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