Are Robots the Answer to Staff Shortages?

Robotics in the supply chain

After a global pandemic, major brands and retailers are slowly recovering. No sector has escaped the crisis unscathed, and both stores and supply chains have been tested by issues ranging from ill staff to shipping delays. But chief among these problems has been a shortage of personnel across the industry. Ninety percent of U.S. commerce leaders have reported that labor shortages are hampering economic growth in their localities. 

In response to this labor supply problem, various technological solutions have found their way into logistics facilities to make up the shortfall. One such solution has been a jump in the number of robots deployed across supply chains worldwide — specifically, autonomous cleaning machines. Owing to a demand for thorough and precise cleaning, in an under-staffed sector, robots have arrived to plug a sudden gap. 

[Related: Levi’s Works Smarter With Automation Bots, Shrinks Manual Workload]

Issues experienced within supply chains over the last two years have changed attitudes toward automation; robots once threatened the workforce but are now viewed by an increasing number as a way to augment human teams and keep them safe.

The Problem

Labor shortages mean that existing staff become easily overwhelmed, as quotas and demands have surged in the aftermath of COVID. Panic-driven over-ordering places additional burdens on the consumer goods sector. In this context, conversations about work have focused on the hardship and overwork faced by employees. 

Against this backdrop, robots can be seen as productivity partners, helping workers get beleaguered supply chains back on track. Labor shortages have become an increasingly significant issue, but also provide the impetus to solve long-standing issues. As companies make their way through an uncertain period, sustainable solutions become critical in assuring both their short-term and long-term viability.

It is important to remember that labor shortages are prevalent in almost every industry. The demand for employees across domains is at a record high, and industries that greet automation stand a fighting chance of successfully managing the labor gap. 

A Robotic Solution

Modern AI-powered robots are designed to support humans first and foremost. Owing to their facility to perform tasks as dependable assistants, robots enable staff to work more efficiently while also successfully managing hazardous environments. 

Crucially, however, human workers still play an essential role: they are now charged with the more specialized task of training and maintaining machines. Brain Corp’s autonomous cleaning robots, for example, need a human user to “teach” the machine its cleaning route.

Human workers are also needed in the uncommon event of a machine encountering an obstacle which it cannot find its way around. Owing to new and improved user interfaces, the setting up and training of machines is easily fulfilled by non-technical staff, who can conveniently activate robots without the need for additional infrastructure requirements or extensive training. 

Learn More on Robot Implementation

As we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic, workers need a helping hand to attain the standards that consumers expect. This need becomes even more pressing as new mutating variants will sporadically place facilities in and out of high alert. But it's not just workers that robots are able to help — it's also managers. 

Modern autonomous machines generate performance data from the work they undertake, which can then be visualized and analyzed by organizations wishing to improve their operations. Managers can interpret data generated by machines that are in use, see what adjustments need to be made, and then judge how best to direct their teams and technology. 

Industrial facilities and consumer-facing outlets will always require human staff, able to focus on higher value tasks and responsibilities. By allocating robots to the heavy lifting — performing mundane, routine tasks and those that come with safety risks — operations and worker welfare are improved.

After the Pandemic

The current labor crisis has created challenges and subsequent workarounds that will exist well into the future. In a survey undertaken by Modern Materials Handling, respondents signaled that they were more likely to pursue a robust technology investment approach. More specifically, the survey indicated that far fewer industry professionals are postponing automation investments, the number decreasing from 41% in 2020, to 23% in 2021.

This pandemic has demonstrated the significant opportunities generated by automation in critical, high-value sectors that generate consumer goods. Across multiple industries, leaders are building more sustainable operations by combining the data-driven sophistication of automated robots with human teams — a trend which is ultimately working to everybody’s best interests.

Michel Spruijt is the senior vice president of international business and general manager of Brain Corp Europe. Spruijl is responsible for partner support, team expansion, and the oversight of general operations throughout the region.