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Robots and Drones

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This article originally appeared in Breakbulk – you can read the original article here.

The kinds of innovations being implemented by third party logistics providers (3PLS) are not limited to new digital technologies. What might be called physical technologies—things like robots and drones that take the place of and/or work alongside human workers—are increasingly being explored and implemented.

Robots are usually deployed to reduce costs and are sometimes demonized for eliminating human jobs.

But in this day and age of deficiency, full employment logistics companies are experiencing labor shortages. Robots are increasingly being utilized to perform tasks for which humans are simply not available.

“The number one thing we tried to solve every day is labor utilization,” said Mike Schoenfeld, Senior Vice President and Head of Contract Logistics in the United States for DB Schenker. “We want to be able to swap out a piece of equipment for human labor. If we can acquire an automated reach truck, we can eliminate three different people from payroll in a 24-hour operation.”

Robots also help with warehouse safety. Schoenfeld noted “Where there are fewer bodies,” he said, “less people will get injured.

Robotics are being deployed in warehouse pick operations, and DB Schenker is starting to pilot technology developed for the pharmaceuticals industry. “Robots are pulling medications from cells and sorting and counting them,” said Schoenfeld. “In the smaller controlled environments, robots can eliminate the need for a person as well as human error.”

Automating picking operation also facilitates the requirements for quick — increasingly, same day e-commerce deliveries. “If you don’t have an automated robotic picking scenario it’s hard to get the job done fast enough.” said Schoenfeld.

Drones once excited the logistics industry for the prospects of their performing last mile deliveries – and some companies are still working on that. But most now feel that drones show the most potential for working inside large distribution centers, peering at items stacked very high for the sake of inspection and inventory control.

They are also starting to be used for yard operations, noted Schoenfeld, to automate accounting for trailers.

Ultimately, 3PLs view the ideal situation as having robots and humans working side-by-side. “The 3PL value proposition has always been to help clients with flexibility, to deal with unexpected surges and other special needs,” said Schoenfeld. “Ultimately that translates to throwing people at the job”.

Ramping up for a surge with additional human resources also implies ramping down when the surge is over. That doesn’t work with robots because they represent Capital investments that cannot be allowed to sit idle. That certain tea points to the value of human labor but also to a paradox of these Full employment times- that you have to have the human labor to deploy. – Peter Buxbaum

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