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Warehouse automation & the future – unemployment unravelled

Article by Michael Trimmer

 

Warehouse automation is sometimes a highly controversial topic. Commercial robotics specifically, and warehouse automation in general, has often been made a scapegoat for industry disruption, unemployment, and wider social upset.

As the landscape of the picker workplace is set to change even further, thanks to industry 4.0’s impact on warehouse automation, it is only natural that questions should emerge in the minds of those whose careers will change the most. That is why in February 2022, five researchers from the Harvard Business Review (Rushda Afzal, Dave Light, Joe Lui, Raghav Narsalay, and Ida Nair Sharma) conducted an in-depth investigation into this area.

Their research involved a series of in-depth recorded interviews with over sixty warehouse workers and front line supervision staff. Speaking to staff working in the US, the UK, Spain, France, and China, the researchers learned about fears and hopes that the sector is laden with as automation goes forward. By understanding what people are afraid of, and then looking at the wider market situation, we can hopefully answer the question “should we be afraid of warehouse automation?”

Warehouse automation – a job killer?

The single largest concern is the one that is most commonly raised whenever warehouse automation is discussed. That the proliferation of robotics specifically, and warehouse automation in general, will result in fewer jobs. According to the HBR’s research, 42% of the responses that expressed “negative sentiment” focused on job losses.

One Chinese warehouse picker and supervisor used exactly the same phrase “this choice [to use robots] may cause us to face unemployment”. A British warehouse clerk echoed this sentiment in the following statement “I don’t mind working side by side with a robot, but I feel that sometimes my job is being pushed out to robots”.

On the face of it, this kind of fear seems perfectly rational. If a robot can perform all the same work as a manual picker, but for no pay and much faster, won’t manual picker jobs go away?

Unemployment unravelled

The first way to debunk this fear about warehouse automation’s power is the general evidence of history. The market has faced wave after wave of automation before, hence why the current situation is called “industry 4.0”. Every time what has happened is the same, the market has shifted, changed, and adjusted. New jobs have emerged where old sectors shrunk or sometimes vanished. Agriculture used to consume 90% of the workforce. Now, it is barely 5% but we still both have food and over 90% of households in the UK are food-secure.

The second way is to examine the statistics surrounding the current situation of warehouse automation, robotic proliferation, and unemployment. According to the International Federation of Robotics, South Korea is among the world leaders in industrial automation with 918 robots for every 10,000 employees. South Korea also still employs over 4.4 million people in manufacturing, placing it fifth in the world in terms of population percentage employed in manufacturing. The most important factor here though is the South Korean unemployment rate, which only stands at 2.7% as of March 2022.

Germany tells a similar story. The IFR places it highest in Europe for industrial robotics deployment, with 346 robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers. Despite this, it boasts 7.9 million manufacturing employees (19% of its total population) and an unemployment rate of just 5%.

This would suggest that warehouse automation isn’t spiking unemployment in the way fearmongers suggest. In truth, there are many other roles within most warehouses where staff will be vital. Also, while a properly arranged flexible warehouse automation system will make seasonal hiring spikes a thing of the past, the tales of doom foretold for the picking sector simply do not have evidential backing.

Learn more in person

To understand the full nature of what modern warehouse automation looks like, come and see it for yourself. Wise Robotics is proud to both own and operates Europe’s first flexible automation demonstration centre.

Come to visit, and you too can see how it could change your business, learn more about it makes the work environment better, and discover why the fears many speak of about warehouse automation are unfounded. The in-person experience is irreplaceable, and the insight you will gain is invaluable.

Once you’ve witnessed it for yourself, you’ll fully understand why we say that, when it comes to warehouse automation, the robotics revolution isn’t just coming. It’s already here.

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