Inside Logistics January February 2021

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AU T O M AT I O N

| By Jacob Stoller

REBOOTING AFTER THE PANDEMIC As supply chain operators contemplate their post-pandemic future, many are seeing uncertainty as the new normal. This is changing how they view automation.

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ne of the most sobering realities about the COVID-19 pandemic is that according to scientists, it will not be the last. In the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) final media briefing of 2020, Dr. Michael Ryan, head of WHO’s Emergencies Programme, warned that “we need to get ready for something that may even be more severe in the future.” At the beginning of 2020, supply chain operators were already struggling to adapt to labour shortages, the growth of e-commerce, and the trend to mass customization. While the pandemic added to their concerns, its full impact wasn’t initially clear. “I would say that in the first few months of the pandemic, there was a little bit of deer in the headlights, where people weren’t sure exactly how long this was going to last,” says Jeff Christensen, vice-president of product for Pittsburghbased Seegrid. “And then, as it was clear that it was going to extend out, people started to understand that ‘we need to deal with this.’” Seegrid and other technology vendors expect demand to pick up in 2021. “People are, I think, accelerating some plans that maybe they were thinking about automating two or three years out,” says Christensen. “Now, it’s ‘let’s pull them forward, and do them sooner instead of later.’” Most of the activity is being undertaken

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by larger companies that already had automation agendas and have been able to increase their market share during the pandemic. “The big box stores are still open for shopping everywhere, and they’re doing a really great business within their distribution centres,” says Warren Shiau, vice-president of research for IDC Canada. “So even though the Canadian distribution centres are still, for the most part, manual, the Costcos and the Amazons are trying to implement as much automation as possible.” “We’re seeing some of the larger big box players making bigger leaps now,” says Chris Shaver, senior director, vertical market activation, at Atlanta-based supply chain technology solution provider Dematic. “They were a bit more advanced in their supply chain capabilities, and they’ve weathered the storm better than some of the smaller organizations.” Amazon is a case in point. While that company opened a robotics R&D facility in 2020, it also hired 400,000 people in fulfillment roles to meet an enormous increase in demand.

Confronting the labour shortage The revelation that the labour shortage will be with us for some time makes the business case for labour-saving automation look like a no brainer. However, while end-to-end automation has succeeded in some environments, e.g. in the food industry, automating warehouses and DCs is more difficult than it appears on the surface. “The issue in the warehouse setting is

that a lot of automation was born out of the manufacturing industry,” says Brian Nachtigall, logistics product and business development for Boston-based robotics supplier Boston Dynamics. “And in manufacturing, a lot of automation and robotics is built around very repetitive tasks where you have prior knowledge of the INSIDE Logistics FEBRU ARY 2021