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Intelligent Robotics: What to Expect in the Post-COVID-19 Era

May 1, 2020
The COVID crisis is prompting companies to invest in automation and robotics to better manage operations, despite facing revenue declines resulting from the pandemic.

The coronavirus has dealt a stunning blow to supply chains, logistics, and fulfillment, shutting businesses and economies down and revealing many of the vulnerabilities they contain. Like other epidemics and pandemics, but unlike most other disasters we commonly encounter (earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, fires, political unrest) that involve physical destruction of buildings and infrastructure, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on supply chains because it has knocked people out of the game. Factories, warehouses, fulfillment centers, vehicles, and roads are not underwater or caved in on themselves. They are withstanding COVID-19 just fine.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people are falling ill globally, social distancing is the rule of the day and most non-essential businesses are temporarily (or permanently) closing their doors. Not surprisingly, consumers, sheltering in place, have quickly ramped up their online shopping. According to a consumer survey conducted by IDC from March 23-31, online shopping is up by 47%, with 35.4% expecting to spend more on retail, whether in-store or online, because of COVID-19 concerns. Moreover, fears of scarcity, as well as the ability to acquire goods, are likely what’s behind a significant increase in bulk buying that goes well beyond toilet paper. Overall, 55.8% of consumers are loading up or expect to load up on bulk quantities of goods. The increase in e-commerce is putting extra pressure on supply chains already strained to the max, requiring as it does more individual picking, packing and shipping of goods, and increased last-mile delivery.

As business executives begin to map out immediate, near- and long-term strategies to improve fulfillment, many of them are looking to increase automation and robotics in warehouses and DCs. This will eliminate some of the risks of slowdowns or shutdowns that arise when workforces are partly or entirely knocked out of the picture.

But even before COVID-19 reared its ugly spikes, the adoption of robotics, automated material handling equipment, artificial intelligence (AI), voice, and other advanced technologies into warehouses and distribution centers (DCs) was on the rise, driven by the need to manage high-velocity operations with limited—and increasingly expensive—labor resources while meeting the ever-changing demands generated by digital commerce.

High competition for labor and talent has been a challenge for organizations across most industries for at least a decade, with businesses struggling to find and retain delivery drivers, warehouse workers, factory workers, mechanics, and retail sales associates, to name just a few of the job roles that are in constant need of people to fill them. Literally hundreds of thousands of jobs remain open in these fields. Some workers recently left unemployed by the pandemic may fill some roles in the near-term but the problem is likely to persist.

Moreover, as technology has advanced and some companies have made significant steps to automate and digitally transform their enterprises, some of the skills those new systems require are more advanced and more difficult to find or recruit. Industries that are typically regarded as less “sexy,” such as manufacturing and retail, often struggle to draw talent in technical expertise. Many of the people highly skilled in areas such as AI and analytics, automation, and robotics gravitate toward Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook and Google. According to the IDC Manufacturing Insights April 2019 Industrial Talent Management Survey, industrial organizations reported that they are experiencing issues with supply chain talent and that more than 50% of the employees in this area lack skills needed to perform as required.

CXOs across industries report that this crisis is prompting them to accelerate plans to invest in automation and robotics to better manage operations, despite facing revenue declines that will result from the pandemic.

In the supply chain, automation, digital connection and edge technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics, to name a few, all integrated and working together, are critical to achieving the speed, efficiency, and resiliency needed to meet both the demands of today’s complex markets and to keep the lines of supply moving and open both in times of normalcy and time of crisis, such as what we are experiencing now with COVID-19. Nearly 28% of respondents to IDC’s 2020 Supply Chain Survey ranked “improving supply chain resiliency/responsiveness” as a top concern driving strategic change in their supply chains.

Among the changes coming to today’s supply chains, expect to see an acceleration of automation and robotics into warehouses. That will likely include more operations converting to “dark warehouses,” those that operate 100% autonomously, but the greater changes will come not in eliminating humans from distribution centers altogether but in replacing non-value-added movement with automation and robotics that can speed processes and make them more efficient.

Today’s intelligent robots are particularly well suited to the complex demands of omni-channel supply chains. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are built with more agile navigational abilities, able to move about anywhere in a warehouse by navigating with built-in sensors and laser scanners, retrieving goods, and bringing them to people. As they move, AMRs can maneuver around obstacles in their path, including people, but also can work in collaboration with people, unlike more traditional automated guided vehicles (AGVs). That’s significant because it means that AMRs can adjust to new layouts and patterns. They are not fixed.

Given the “eaches” nature of e-commerce and the variability of SKUs and orders that characterize them, this class of robots offers businesses the ability to flex and scale as needed without major infrastructure changes. This is true, too, for intelligent robot arms that are getting better at assessing a wide variety of objects in front of them and grasping with the correct force and grip. They can be used to quickly sort items into appropriate bins or packages for shipping. These two developments are particularly significant when you consider the soaring demand for smaller, more local warehouses located closer to point of delivery, which need to operate quickly and flexibly.

We are not going to wake up tomorrow and find that robots have replaced humans in the warehouse. But we are going to see robots improve the fulfillment process by eliminating labor that is redundant, physically taxing and non-value-added, and by doing it faster and more efficiently. A full 72.8% of respondents to IDC’s 2020 Supply Chain Survey say that robotics will be important or very important to their organization in three years. Intelligent robotics will speed and improve the flow of goods through the warehouse and DC while freeing humans to focus on other tasks that involve human strengths such as creativity, critical thinking, fine-motor coordination, and customer engagement.

Jordan K. Speer is a research analyst with the IDC Retail Insights practice, covering global connected supply chain execution and fulfillment across the retail and manufacturing industries.

About the Author

Jordan K. Speer

Jordan K. Speer is a research analyst with the IDC Retail Insights practice, covering global connected supply chain execution and fulfillment across the retail and manufacturing industries.