Instead of Fearing Technology, Use It to Retain the Logistics Workforce You Need
Every once in a while, I talk to people who question the value of artificial intelligence and generative AI.
They worry about overhype, about whether their workforce will welcome AI. They see that last year, Gartner placed generative AI on the “peak of inflated expectations” portion of the company’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies.
But as I survey the landscape for AI hype vs. AI reality, warehouse management systems are an area where AI really works. And while many workers worry AI will destroy jobs, 83% of warehouse employees are more likely to work for an employer that provides modern technology instead of older devices.
That means artificial intelligence in warehousing could be a competitive advantage in today’s struggle to retain the workforce that helps you pick, pack and ship.
Let’s examine the difficulty warehouse labor has faced through the ages – and how AI could be more transformative than conveyors, automated guided vehicles, automated storage and retrieval machines and other material handling equipment.
Warehouse Woes of Yore: From Mesopotamian Granaries to 14th Century England
While technology influences employee sentiment today, workers in previous centuries did not have much to choose from.
Decades ago, I cut my teeth on warehouse planning. So many warehouses had so many problems: inefficient layouts, poor inventory management, poor preparedness for seasonal demand, safety issues.
But at least we had some modicum of technology. Forklifts and conveyor belts were invented in the early 20th century. Automated storage and retrieval systems in the 1960s. Many warehouses of today use automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and robotics.
When in Ancient Roman Warehouses, You Lift Harder
Loading and unloading ships: Warehouse labor manually unloaded the grain from ships. Workers used a combination of human labor and basic tools like ropes, pulleys and wooden planks. Teams of dockworkers worked together to transfer sacks or containers of grain from the ship’s hold to the docks.
Transporting grain to granaries: From the docks, the grain needed to be transported to the granaries within the city. Workers likely used wheelbarrows, carts or carried sacks on their shoulders. The Tiber River facilitated transportation, as granaries were strategically located near its banks. Grain flowed on barges up the Tiber River to Rome.
Storing grain in granaries: Workers stacked the grain in an organized manner, ensuring efficient use of space. Wooden bins or containers protected the grain from pests and moisture.
Distribution to citizens: Roman citizens collected subsidized or free grain. When citizens came to collect the grain, workers measured the allotted amount. Workers used baskets or other containers to distribute the grain.
Tools and techniques: While we don’t have detailed records of every tool used, we can infer workers used basic implements like scoops, baskets and ropes. The work was physically demanding, and workers likely relied on strength and endurance.
I cannot imagine spending a workweek lifting huge sacks of grain and carrying them on my back, using rudimentary tools.
Hand Trucks and Candlelight: Tools of the Trade
Even in the 19th century, warehouses weren’t the greatest workplace in the world. Much of the labor was still done manually, with workers loading and unloading goods from ships, wagons or trains.
Inside, they stacked crates, barrels and bales on shelves. Items were sorted by type, size, or destination. Labels helped identify their location. Inventory management was the province of clerks who recorded incoming and outgoing goods.
Material handling equipment still consisted of hand trucks and carts. Warehouses often lacked natural light, so oil lamps or candles provided illumination.
Dim Lights, Dusty Corners and Slippery Floors: Safety Challenges in Warehouse Shadows
In the 20th century, warehouses varied significantly in terms of cleanliness and safety. Some of those historical issues include:
- Dirt and dust: Many warehouses were indeed dusty and dirty. Goods were often stored in wooden crates, burlap sacks or cardboard boxes. These materials could shed particles, creating a dusty environment.
- Lack of modern cleaning equipment: Unlike today’s automated sweepers and industrial vacuums, cleaning in the past relied on manual labor. Workers swept floors with brooms, but thorough cleanliness was challenging.
- Heavy lifting: Workers often manually moved heavy items, risking strain, back injuries, and accidents.
- Stacking and collapsing: Stacked goods could collapse, endangering workers.
- Slippery floors: Spills could make floors slippery.
- Forklifts and cranes: As forklifts and cranes became common, they introduced new safety challenges.
- Chemical storage: Warehouses that held chemicals, paints and solvents offered the risk of potential exposure.
- Fire hazards: Wooden structures and flammable materials made warehouses susceptible to fires.
- Poor lighting: Many warehouses lacked adequate natural light. Oil lamps or electric bulbs provided illumination, but dimly lit areas increased accident risks.
- Ventilation: Proper ventilation was essential to prevent fumes, especially in warehouses storing chemicals or perishable goods.
- Emergency exits: Warehouses often lacked clear emergency exits, making evacuation difficult during crises.
As you can see, warehouses have historically faced significant challenges from manual labor, outdated equipment and varying conditions.
Mapping the Future: Adaptive Intelligence and Digital Twins Transform Warehousing
Decades ago, I cut my teeth on facility planning. Beyond the safety issues and lack of technology of yesterday, so many warehouses had so many problems: inefficient layouts, poor inventory management, poor preparedness for seasonal demand.
Artificial intelligence can help warehouses and distribution centers work smarter. These systems use adaptive intelligence and digital twins:
- Adaptive intelligence: Adaptive intelligence gives your warehouse a smart brain that learns and adapts. It helps improve workflow and operations.
- Digital twins: A digital twin is a digital map of your warehouse. This computerized mapping details how workflows actually operate in your warehouse. This helps you understand what’s happening in real time.
Adaptive intelligence and digital twin apps help warehouse managers:
- Route things more efficiently (like finding the fastest way to move products).
- Slot items in the right places (like organizing shelves in a store).
- Manage their capacity better (knowing how much stuff they can handle).
In short, the right artificial intelligence applications will help your warehouses, distribution and fulfillment centers run smoother, even when things get unpredictable.
And in a world of perpetual disruption, you can expect the next unpredictable wave to hit real soon – if it hasn’t struck already.
High-Tech Appeal: How AI Attracts Today’s Workforce
Staff hesitancy is understandable. Many fear change, and many fear losing their jobs to AI. But supply chain leaders need to address this by explaining that AI enhances competitiveness.
And, as noted above, today’s workers want a high-tech environment. AI could be a key differentiator.
Face it, a dirty, dusty warehouse from the 1940s will not appeal to today’s workforce.
Today’s AI systems include visual and audio learning, instructions that make it easy to onboard staff. Your human workforce and machines would safely share the same physical, logical and social context-awareness information and activities. Your operators move from text picking to seeing rich flows of data from the digital world paired with the reality of the physical world.
AI Routing Agents: Orchestrating Human-Machine Collaboration
From the worker’s point of view, 3D work views, augmented reality and artificial intelligence can revolutionize warehouse operations.
The AI routing agent integrates the employee into your entire network worker of autonomous robots, forklifts, other machines and human environments. The routing agent integrates with existing systems and provides orchestration across multi-vendor robotic platforms.
Imagine you’re a warehouse worker wearing a pair of smart glasses. Instead of constantly glancing down at a handheld device, you now have critical information displayed directly within your field of vision.
As you move through the warehouse, the augmented reality glasses provide step-by-step instructions overlaid on your view. This is actionable real-time data. These instructions guide you to the exact location of items for picking, packing or sorting.
The glasses use vision processing to recognize barcodes, labels and product images. When you reach a shelf, the AR display highlights the correct item, ensuring you pick the right one.
To confirm tasks, you can use simple gestures (like thumbs-up or thumbs-down), voice commands or even scan barcodes using the glasses’ built-in camera. No need to juggle devices or memorize complex instructions.
This is the modern, AI-driven way to fulfill orders, help workers make informed decisions and manage inventory levels.
Want an AI warehouse system that offers interoperability, standard tools for extracting, transforming and loading data into any robotic or computational system, spatial-based AI algorithms for intelligent routing, and the ability to scale? Want an AI warehouse option that integrates easily with your current WMS – or replaces it with a new one?
Scaling Up: Time to Use AI to Expand Warehouse Capabilities
Well then, I would love to discuss what today’s AI systems can do for your warehouse operations.
Improving efficiency and improving productivity should always be your goal. And supply chain leadership that does not pursue AI in warehousing risks getting left behind.
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Jim Tompkins, Chairman of Tompkins Ventures, is an international authority on designing and implementing end-to-end supply chains. Over five decades, he has designed countless industrial facilities and supply chain solutions, enhancing the growth of numerous companies. He previously built Tompkins International from a backyard startup into an international consulting and implementation firm. Jim earned his B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering from Purdue University.