24 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
supply chain
Robotics, the 21st century steam engine
By Jim Tompkins
Going into the new year, we expect to
see many reports discussing problems
faced during the 2018 holidays. We
also will see many success stories from
companies that learned from past holi-
days and have joined the robot revolu-
If you have not yet taken this step,
now is the time to re-evaluate your
operations to understand what must be
done to be successful in 2019. Any fu-
ture strategy must consider alternatives
that improve efficiency in space and
labor, while providing the scal-
ability and flexibility to adapt to
unexpected business changes.
Projections from the Bureau
of Labor Statistics show the labor
force growing at a slightly lower
rate than warehouse employment
numbers over the next 10 years.
For the foreseeable future, it ap-
pears warehousing and distribution
operations will need to figure out how
to continue increasing production
with minimal growth in head count.
Each supply chain driven by e-com-
merce and single-unit store replenish-
ment has intensified this problem by
increasing the labor requirement and
cost per item, while labor availability
is shrinking.
Historically, robots have been ap-
plied to the processes of storing and
moving cases in distribution centers.
Only recently has the technology
evolved to support picking and sorting.
This has opened up a whole new op-
portunity for distribution automation.
“Robotics and automation tech-
nologies have increasing labor produc-
tivity by about 0.35 percent annually,
which may not sound like much, but
is on par with the impact felt by the
steam engine from 1850 to 1910,” the
Harvard Business Review stated.
At the same time, warehouse space
has become harder to find as online
sales continue to increase demand
for distribution center capacity. This
shortage has a direct correlation to the
cost of industrial space. Automating
the storage and retrieval of products in
the warehouse has reduced the amount
of space required in an operation by
greater than 50 percent, increasing the
density of products that can be stored.
The use of autonomous robots can fur-
ther reduce the space required by elim-
inating fixed conveyor paths and much
of the staging and buffer space require-
ments with conventional technologies.
We have all learned that projections
and forecasts are never accurate. The
only thing we know for sure is that e-
commerce demand continues to out-
grow projections year after year, and
that order proles and customer re-
quirements continue to change.
Automation used to be a rigid, in-
flexible solution that was typically
overbuilt to support a five- to seven-
year time horizon. These solutions
were only at the proper capacity level
at one point in time during that period
and usually only “fit” the business re-
quirement in the early days of the im-
plementation. Most robotic solutions
grow with you, allowing you to in-
crementally invest the capital required
when it is actually needed. These
systems also provide the flexibil-
ity to change quickly without a
major overhaul, saving capital and
With the holidays over, it is
time to execute. Once again, it
will be fun to watch the winners
and losers of 2018 and see who
learned the most from past years. Who
knows what 2019 will have in store
for us? All we know is that labor will
be scarce, space will be expensive and
business requirements will continue
to change. It is time to equip your-
self with the solutions that can address
these challenges.
Jim Tompkins, CEO of Tompkins Inter-
national, has written or contributed to more
than 30 books. He also writes the Creating
Supply Chain Excellence blog. Contact him
at jtompkins@tompkinsinc.com.
Most robotic solutions grow with
you, allowing you to incrementally
invest the capital required when
it is actually needed.
“R&M in the Second Machine Age –
The Challenge of
Cyber Physical Systems”
Attend RAMS® 2019
January 28 – 31, 2019
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R&M In The Second Machine Age
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Cyber Physical Systems
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