November 1, 2019

Users ask for better communication from warehouse robotics vendors

Retailers and manufacturers need automation to help with labor shortages, but vendors tend to overpromise and underperform, MHI panelists say.

By Ben Ames

Retailers and manufacturers are calling for more open and honest communication from vendors of warehouse automation products in their ongoing efforts to use robotics for solutions to labor shortages and surging e-commerce volumes, according to a panel held at the recent MHI Annual Conference.

Finding qualified labor for warehouse work is a persistent problem, driving employers to look to automation for ways to augment—not replace—their workers, panelist Brian Poveromo, senior facility and maintenance manager for American Eagle Outfitters, said in the session. He spoke on a panel called "Unlocking the Supply Chain with Robotics," held Oct. 16 during MHI's conference in La Quinta, California.

Despite that pressing need, end-users often struggle to apply robotic solutions because many vendors are afraid to share bad news with their clients when project slip behind schedule, the panel said. "Number one, don't lie to me," Poveromo said, when asked to name the challenges that users face during implementation. "Overpromising and underperforming is the biggest problem."

A second way that solution providers could improve is by helping guide their customers through the cultural change of installing robots in a warehouse, since many workers are afraid the new automation will replace their jobs, he said.

"Just tell me the truth, be honest about it," panelist Alan McDonald, vice president for continuous improvement at Geodis, said in the session. He also described workers' fears of losing their jobs to robots, but said his company had seen success when they got employees introduced to robots early in the process, offering them training for the transition to new job descriptions.

The other panelists included Meredith Westafer, senior industrial engineer at Tesla Motors, and Christian Wurll, professor of electrical engineering and automation at the University of Applied Sciences in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Asked for final takeaways to share with material handling automation solution providers, the panelists urged vendors to share more public details about the technology inside the "black box" of their products. 

For example, providers of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) often require customers to use a proprietary type of control software to manage the units. However, most companies use  automation from a variety of vendors in each building, and prefer to use a single software platform to control them all, the panel said.

Finally, automation vendors should nurture their relationship with clients after the sale is done. "Don't walk away," Poveromo said. "We need a partnership, because we are going to continue to grow and expand."

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

More articles by Ben Ames

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