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Why Retailers are Prioritizing Human-Machine Collaboration over Full Warehouse Automation

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Integrating advanced technology into retail operations is becoming increasingly crucial as market demands evolve. Consumers now expect next-day delivery, click-and-collect, swift returns and near-flawless accuracy as the new norm. To meet these growing demands, retailers are turning to advanced technologies that enhance efficiency, optimize productivity and navigate the volatility of the current labor market.

To better understand how retailers are adopting this technology, ProGlove surveyed over 1,000 retail warehousing professionals. The study revealed insights into how technology is helping retailers keep up with the pace and quality of service customers have come to expect. Yet in an era when rapid technological advancements are redefining warehouse operations, the survey found that retail leaders still place human workers at the center of this adoption process.

While automation is undoubtedly a crucial part of the productivity puzzle, retailers are pursuing a hybrid strategy instead of embracing full automation. They are leveraging human-machine collaboration to boost productivity and efficiency.

What Role does Automation Play in Warehouses Currently?

Automation is not perceived as a fix-all solution on its own, nor should it be. The Leadership Insights for Retail Warehouse Management report revealed that only 6% of respondents expressed high satisfaction with their current automation and robotics initiatives. Another 44% indicated a moderate level of satisfaction, while 19% expressed dissatisfaction.

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Automation solutions are often deliberated in long-term planning, with 48% of survey respondents anticipating payback within the next five years. This statistic implies that automation and robotics are viewed as a deliberate, long-term investment rather than a quick fix. Retailers are taking an incremental approach to technological implementation, avoiding major disruptions to existing processes. This strategy allows for gradual efficiency and productivity improvements without fully embracing automation.

Boosting Productivity

With the rollout of automation solutions in warehouses remaining measured and steady, there remains an overwhelming belief among retailers that this new technology is key to addressing challenges facing the retail sector. Survey respondents anticipate significant productivity gains from technology adoption, with 31% expecting an 11%-20% increase and 35% projecting a 21%-30% boost in productivity. These expectations underscore the industry’s collective confidence in the transformative potential of technology.

Beyond the obvious advantage of increased efficiency and productivity, when implemented correctly, automation solutions can reduce errors, waste and downtime.

Fostering Human-Machine Collaboration

Despite the well-founded optimism surrounding this new technology, retail leaders are confident that human workers remain indispensable in warehouse operations. Furthermore, their organizational headcount bears this claim.

Over the past five years, 23% of respondents reported no change in the number of warehouse workers, while over half (51%) reported an increase. Contrary to concerns about technological adoption leading to labor displacement, 40% of respondents anticipate an increase in their headcount over the next year. Consequently, retailers must prioritize training workers to use this new technology, as its effectiveness relies on a skilled workforce for implementation.

Notably, 25.2% of respondents emphasized the importance of human-machine collaboration, recognizing it as a key factor in driving operational improvements. By focusing on ‘CollaboMation’ rather than full automation, technology can be used to enhance the capabilities of human workers. Machines can significantly reduce the physical burden on workers by automating tasks such as inventory sorting, packaging and transporting goods across the facility.

This shift means workers can focus on tasks that require critical thinking, problem-solving and customer service — areas where human judgment and emotional intelligence are irreplaceable. They also can dedicate more time to quality control, overseeing the automated processes for efficiency and engaging in strategic planning to improve warehouse operations and the overall customer experience.

Ultimately, these collaborative solutions can aid retailers in achieving their objectives of increased productivity and improving product quality while concurrently trimming costs and mitigating the risks of full automation.

Improving Worker Satisfaction

Given persistent labor shortages, the significance of a technology-enabled workforce capable of delivering results with reduced stress and heightened job satisfaction cannot be overstated. The integration of advanced warehouse technologies not only streamlines operational processes but also enables the workforce to focus on value-added tasks, thereby enhancing overall efficiency and employee well-being.

When workers have the appropriate tools and training to complete tasks efficiently and effectively, general morale improves. In light of the current volatile state of the labor market and growing concerns about job displacement, worker satisfaction stands as an increasingly crucial factor in enhancing productivity. Leveraging worker satisfaction and feedback to inform technology adoption decisions is paramount for retailers. An employee-first approach ensures that key decisions align with the needs of the workforce, ultimately leading to productivity and engagement growth.

Where do we go Next?

ProGlove’s study highlights the growing importance of technology integration in driving operational efficiency and productivity growth within the evolving retail sector.

While there are concerns about the impact of new technology on human labor, there is consensus that full automation remains a distant prospect. Human workers continue to occupy a central role in warehouse operations, with technology viewed as a means to augment human capabilities rather than replace human workers.


Axel Schmidt is Principal Communications Manager at ProGlove, a leading industrial wearable scanning solution provider.

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