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Robots Take On Warehouse Tasks.

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The robots are coming to labor-strapped North American warehouses. Growing numbers of selfdriving machines are shuttling clothing and sports equipment down warehouse aisles, pulling bins of groceries and industrial parts from high stacks and handing off goods to human workers to help deliver orders faster.

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Some logistics operators are testing forklifts that can be operated from remote locations, allowing employers in tight labor markets to draw from a geographically broader pool of workers.

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The push toward automation comes as businesses say they can’t hire warehouse workers fast enough to meet surging online demand for everything from furniture to frozen food in pandemic-disrupted supply chains. The crunch is accelerating the adoption of robots and other technology in a sector that still largely relies on workers pulling carts.

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“This is not about taking over your job, it’s about taking care of those jobs we can’t fill,” said Kristi Montgomery, vice president of innovation, research and development for Kenco Logistics Services, a third-party logistics provider based in Chattanooga, US. Kenco is rolling out a fleet of self-driving robots from Locus Robotics Corp. to bridge a labor gap by helping workers fill online orders at the company’s largest e-commerce site, in Jeffersonville, US. The company is also testing autonomous tractors that tow carts loaded with pallets.

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Locus Robotics.

To save on labor and space at a distribution center for heating, ventilation and airconditioning equipment, the company is installing an automated storage and retrieval system set to go online this fall that uses robots to fetch goods packed closely together in dense rows of stacks.

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Geodis tests a remote-operated forklift.
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Geodis tests a remote-operated forklift.

Kenco and France-based logistic provider Geodis are also testing remote-operated forklifts equipped with technology from startup Phantom Auto that drivers can operate remotely using real-time video and audio streams.

The technology allows operators to switch between vehicles in different locations depending on demand, opening up those jobs to workers in various regions. It could also let Kenco access untapped sections of the labor market, such as people who are disabled, Ms. Montgomery said.

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Logistics-automation companies say demand for their technology has grown during the pandemic as companies look for ways to cope with big swings in volume when workers are scarce and social distancing requirements limit building occupancy.

“Robots are beginning to fill that void,” said Dwight Klappich, a supply-chain research vice president at Gartner. The research firm forecasts that demand for robotic systems that deliver goods to human workers will quadruple through 2023.

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6 River Systems Robots.

“We have been benefiting from that significantly since the second half of last year,” said Jerome Dubois, co-founder and co-chief executive of robotics provider 6 River Systems, which is owned by Shopify Inc. “The driver here is not to reduce costs, but simply to serve the customer’s needs. They simply cannot hire.”

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The growth of e-commerce demand during the coronavirus pandemic added strains to what was already a tight labor market for logistics. U.S. warehousing and storage companies added nearly 168000 jobs between April 2020 and April 2021, federal figures show, a rise of 13.6%. But sector payrolls contracted by 4300 jobs from March to April, according to the Labor Department.

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Many logistics employers say they can’t add enough staff to keep pace with strong demand as the U.S. economy emerges from the pandemic. The staffing shortfall is driving up wages as logistics operators compete with heavyweights including Amazon.com, which plans to hire another 75000 warehouse workers this year. Logistics-staffing firm ProLogistix said its average starting pay for warehouse workers was $16.58 an hour in April 2021 up 8.9% from April 2020.Robots Take On Warehouse Tasks.

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