Supply chain executives are faced with increasing fulfillment demands, rising consumer expectations, and a national labor shortage. To stay competitive, they must evaluate advanced technology and automation solutions that not only meet their business, but also serve their workers. This requires going beyond productivity to true efficiency. While productivity is quantified by the rate at which results are achieved, efficiency is measured by the costs of resources invested and the reduction of waste (of time, physical exertion, and mental exhaustion) involved in achieving those results. 

In order to keep up with customer demands for fast, accurate service in a tight labor market, robotic systems improve efficiency by removing human error from mundane, repetitive tasks like piece picking. Robots haven’t reached the same levels of dexterity as humans; however, robots are able to accomplish more over the course of a shift. So while it is clear that automation can impact productivity, competitiveness, and employment patterns, we must go further to find efficiency.  When robots and humans work together, it is a boon to the individual worker, complementing and augmenting labor activities, with a positive net impact on jobs, as well as providing for a higher quality of work life for the human workforce. 

Just as it took us as a society a while to learn how to use computers in a manner that increased global productivity; likewise, it has taken time to figure out what robots can do to improve not just productivity, but also the efficiency of our industries.  “While e-commerce is growing at double-digit annual rates, automation penetration remains quite low in many cases,” Technology at Work v3.0 states. Businesses need to think bigger if they want to avoid falling victim to another Solow’s Paradox – which refers to the slowdown in productivity growth in the 1970s and 1980s despite the era’s rapid development in technology.. No longer can executives think in terms of 10% improvement, rather they need to radically change their business process, and look for 10 times better process.  

“Robotics will continue to accelerate innovation, thus disrupting and changing the paradigm of business operations in many industries. …We encourage end-user companies to embrace and assess how robotics can sharpen their company’s competitive edge by improving quality, increasing operational productivity and agility, and enhancing experiences of all stakeholders.”

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Both productivity and efficiency will increase with automation, which will benefit both the workers and companies. The new technology can fuel company growth and, in turn, create new, higher-level jobs. It does, however, become more critical for companies to re-invest in workers’ capacity and in retraining. When automation can handle up to 45 percent of repetitive work, it gives workers time for more higher-value tasks such as problem-solving and developing new ideas. This will empower employees, and generate a more engaging and challenging work experience.

“When automation or computerization makes some steps in a work process more reliable, cheaper, or faster, this increases the value of the remaining human links in the production chain.”

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Those companies that have integrated automation and new technology into their operations have seen promising early results, with an improved bottom line, higher efficiency and greater employee productivity. And for employees, the mix of their work is changing to be less repetitive and more judgment-intensive. Workforce changes are creating new and more exciting jobs, rather than merely eliminating positions. 

Workers in warehouses that have brought in autonomous mobile manipulation robots are given higher-level tasks with more responsibility, and are transformed into a robot operator. They manage operations, coordinate flows, fix robots, and handle exceptions or difficult orders. Employees can also train the robots through simple interfaces to do easy and repetitive tasks. Both small and large warehouses can enjoy both productivity and efficiency gains when robots support the existing workforce, and allows workers to flex and scale operational capacity according to changing demand.