Warehouses and fulfilment centres are currently experiencing widespread labour shortages and are failing to attract workers. Automation provides a remedy for this, in turn boosting morale for higher retention rates and improving companies’ efficiency and productivity.
The previous decade saw a steady shift towards online operations across multiple sectors of the world economy. However, the last few years have seen acceleration in this area, as more and more businesses establish a larger presence online. At the forefront of this is the eCommerce sector, which over the last two years has grown by 36% in the UK.
Although this growth has been welcomed, the surge in demand that spurred it on has left the sector with numerous challenges. At a time when increasing the available labour pool seems vital, warehouses and fulfilment centres have offered incentives to employees — such as a salary increase of up to 30%, as well as generous sign-on bonuses.
Despite this, warehouses are still struggling to attract new workers. In the UK, a combination of the pandemic and Brexit has contributed to labour shortages, but this is not the whole story — many warehouses around the world have been failing to attract and retain workers for some time. Working conditions are often sub-standard and much of the job can be physically taxing. Many feel that the rates of pay simply do not make the job worth it. Additionally, however, the staff that warehouses are able to attract and retain are not used as efficiently as they could be.
The growth in online shopping and eCommerce, largely a result of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, shows no signs of slowing down. Therefore, the industry needs a more sustainable way to meet the ever-rising demand that comes with it. Automation and robotics have begun to take up a larger role in the warehouse environment, which means businesses can meet the demand far more easily, even exceeding capacity to drive further growth.
Below are three reasons why warehouses can take advantage of automation and robotics to solve labour problems and become more productive.
Whilst it is true that many of the more labour-intensive jobs will be automated, this is no bad thing. As mentioned above, repetitive, physically demanding labour is a deterrent for potential warehouse workers. Tasks like order picking, which previously saw workers walking up and down the warehouse floor for hours, can now be more efficiently completed.
This is not to say that everything will be automated; the warehouse is still going to need workers. However, automation allows them to take on less physical jobs, such as handling the packaging stage, meaning that overall morale can be increased. Ultimately, more stimulating, less physically demanding work will make these positions more attractive.
Another issue this solves is warehouses’ over-reliance on agency workers to “fill the gap” during peak times where output needs to be higher. Instead of forcing employees to work harder for longer, existing technology can meet the demand or more can be added, driving up productivity at no cost to the employees’ well-being. Prior to adopting automation, a warehouse in Scotland was averaging 10 despatches per hour, but since installing more automated systems, this went up to 40 despatches per hour, and are fulfilling 100% of in-stock orders for next day delivery.
Although contrary to popular belief, leading warehouse automation solutions can be operated with just a small amount of training. All employees can be trained quickly, and select employees can receive additional training to ensure confidence in using the operating systems. Leading solutions will also provide round-the-clock access to experts should there be any more complex questions.
Warehouses can become largely self-sufficient as far as general maintenance goes. Systems can be scaled at will to accommodate growth and other changes to the warehouse environment. Importantly, the installation process can be managed to not disrupt fulfilment, meaning no productivity is lost.
Higher worker retention
The labour crisis is not just about an inability to secure new hires, but the ability to keep workers too. Unsavoury working conditions, long hours and repetitive tasks all contribute to the warehouse sector’s high staff turnover rates.
Introducing automation means workers can focus on more stimulating, less physical tasks, demonstrating that the company cares about their wellbeing and greatly values their services. This in turn will lead to greater worker satisfaction and, therefore, higher rates of retention.
To conclude, warehouses must face their challenges head on and not simply “wish them away”. This can be achieved through automation. Today, automated solutions are available to operations of all sizes, not just the largest. By moving past models that put undue physical and mental stress on workers, businesses can make warehouse positions more attractive to potential new hires, as well as motivating existing employees to stay in the job.
About the author
Gavin Harrison is the UK Sales Manager at global warehouse automation and intralogistics specialist, Element Logic.