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The psychology behind warehouse automation

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Shreya Christinahttps://londonbusinessblog.com
Shreya has been with londonbusinessblog.com for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider londonbusinessblog.com team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

Lior is co-founder and CEO of inVia Robotics with over 20 years of experience in internet networking, robotics and software development.

Due to the pandemic and the ensuing ‘Great Layoff’, industries were faced with the constant questions of how they want to work and how they work best. While some industries took this to a remote working model, others looked at improving their existing environments where remote working is not plausible. This has led to the renewed reliance on tools such as automation.

I mentioned in my last article that automation, in the form of robots, is commonly associated with the negative connotation of taking away what humans provide. But today this story changes. Modern automation puts people first, especially when it comes to making their work less taxing. On the one hand, it allows them to work in bursts, which provides time for phone calls, lunch, toilet breaks and socializing among colleagues. It also gives people the space to do what they do best: solve problems and make higher-level decisions, and let robots do what they do best: mundane and repetitive tasks.

Robots are great at doing the specific tasks they are programmed to do and do it with precision. And that’s why modern automation is increasingly seen in the restaurants where you eat, the hotels where you go on vacation, the home delivery you receive and even the medicines you need. However, robots are incapable of solving their own problems, and this is where humans excel.

But how does this tool complement these industries? In addition to providing an extra set of “hands,” there are deep-seated psychological factors at play.

The human nature behind cracks

Essentially, the human brain is not designed to perform the same task repeatedly with no end in sight. Instead, people are wired to perform a task in a burst before they start thinking about another topic or are drawn to something that grabs their attention. This could be as small as a gust of wind outside your window, colleagues talking in the other room or, most likely these days, the buzz in our pockets from a cell phone. As a whole, we want to perform tasks with some variation. We might be doing a repetitive task for an hour, but for the next two hours we’ll be solving problems — eventually giving both sides of our brains a chance to bend.

Unfortunately, most traditional automation requires humans to act like robots, performing the same task over and over as part of a machine-to-person transfer sequence. It’s monotonous work and frankly it’s impossible for people to keep up with the pace that automation maintains.

Remember the I love Lucy “change jobs” episode where the main characters try to work on an assembly line? It’s funny on television to see Lucy cram chocolates while trying to keep up, but unfortunately this is the reality for many warehouse workers. Some companies don’t like people going to the bathroom or talking on the phone because they have literally millions of dollars worth of automation equipment waiting for them. The newer automation systems are changing this by evaluating what humans do best and where robots can complement them. If you think about this from a warehouse perspective, there are several tasks that are continuously required for day-to-day operations: walking, picking and packing.

The repeated task of walking

Let’s focus on walking. Walking (or cycling) is a simple task that humans can perform, but when that constant repetition becomes too much, it often leads to injury, boredom, or a combination of both. This is not the case with robots. They are great at repeatedly moving between two or more points using a defined path. They can repeat these tasks endlessly, and they are much better at it than at solving problems.

With that in mind, there are robotic systems available today that focus on leveraging the strengths of humans and the strengths of robots. They eliminate the warehouse walking that employees do every day, allowing them to perform inventory management and packaging tasks that require decision-making and agility. They also allow people to work in bursts, reducing boredom and mistakes.

With this mix of automation and human collaboration, warehouses find long-term solutions to keep their productivity high and support their workforce both mentally and financially. The labor shortage in these warehouses is understandable. People just don’t want to be robots, and we can’t blame them for not wanting to work in these fulfillment warehouses the way they’ve traditionally worked.

For example, my company has contributed to the creation of automated solutions that allow pickers to use less energy; they can stay in a concentrated space with padded floors and have more time to socialize while working. These are the kinds of innovations to consider when bringing automation into a warehouse environment, which ease things like walking, packing and picking.

The science behind productivity

Unlike Amazon’s approach, there are warehouse automation tools that consider the importance of removing dependencies between robots and humans. By decoupling the tasks of each labor force or removing the direct transfers, robotic systems have moved from robots that wait for a person to robots that create buffers between machine labor and human labor.

In warehouses where automation is present within this form, I see a new sense of community emerging. Rather than working in silos with little to no space for breaks, side conversations, or collaboration, automation can pave the way for warehouse workers to work on a more social level with those around them. Putting less strain on employees’ bodies and letting them socialize should be a priority if you want to create a better and more efficient work environment.

With the right type of automation, focused on people and their strengths, I believe we can make working for a warehouse as exciting as building a spaceship.


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