In warehouses across Europe, man and machine are increasingly working more closely together – and a lack of future manpower could accelerate automation further.
In Andover, online grocery retailer Ocado operates an automated fulfilment centre, which includes a robot grid – or “Hive” – which uses proprietary storage and picking technology to enhance warehouse efficiency through a tightly-controlled grid of robots shifting groceries with humans working behind the scenes.
Global online retailer Amazon’s Winsen centre near Hamburg is also staffed in a similar human-meets-robot way. After pioneering the use of robots in the U.S. in 2012, it has rolled out the technology to help with stock-picking in other facilities, with Winsen marking a first for Germany in the process.
While robots are no longer a novelty in warehouses, the Andover and Winsen examples are far from the norm. The majority of facilities across Europe are still manually operated – with no supporting automation. This makes people their biggest asset, yet many European markets are facing labour shortage issues, with working age populations expected to fall in countries including Germany, Poland and Spain between now and 2031, according to Oxford Economics.
“German warehouse operators need staff but struggle to find them,” says JLL Industrial and Logistics research director, Alexandra Tornow. “Fewer people want to work in warehousing nowadays as is the fact that roles in other sectors often pay more. That´s a potential problem for online retailers with large warehouses in Germany.”
The UK, with around 12 percent of its logistics workforce coming from Europe, is facing the prospect of lower net migration beyond its eventual departure from the European Union.
Labour in short supply
Yet demand for staff is on the rise as e-commerce continues to grow in popularity across Europe – and warehouses fulfilling online orders tend to be more labour-intensive than average.
This is where robots, or rather ‘cobots’ (small collaborative robots) come into play. Their use is rapidly becoming more widespread, working alongside human colleagues on repetitive tasks to keep warehouses running efficiently.
Swisslog’s AutoPiQ solution, for example, sees robots picking the items they can with humans finishing off the job. DHL’s Sawyer robots, meanwhile, have articulated arms and suction grabbers to help pack products.
Despite advances in technology giving robots softer grips and more autonomy, Jon Sleeman JLL’s Head of EMEA Industrial and Logistics Research, believes that some roles still need the human touch.
“What we often see is a combination of automation and manual labour, where certain functions are automated but where people still perform many roles, such as unpacking and inspection,” he says. “Automated systems come into play particularly for the storing, retrieving and movement of goods.”
Different stages of development
The use of automation will differ significantly depending on location. Warehouse operators in Germany and Scandinavia, says Sleeman, are more likely to automate than their central and eastern Europe peers due to labour costs and more limited availability of space for development.
“Implementation varies between industries and countries,” says Sleeman. “Countries where land and labour are constrained and expensive are also more likely to use automation.”
To suggest robots will cure Europe´s warehouse labour shortage may be too extreme. But the incorporation of more automation could at least go some way to filling the gap.
“Problems in finding labour will encourage companies to invest more in warehouse automation, cutting staffing requirements and costs while boosting efficiency,” says Sleeman. “Yes, tasks such as unloading and goods movement are ripe for automation. But that does not mean humans will disappear from warehouse – and higher skilled workers will still be required to oversee, operate, maintain and repair the automated systems.
“Nevertheless, human and robotic interaction will become an increasingly important factor behind warehouse productivity,” he concludes.