Matt Wicks is vice president of product development at Honeywell Intelligrated. He has an engineering background and has worked in the material handling industry for more than 25 years. His expertise is in controls and software integration in manufacturing and distribution systems, but he also has extensive experience in advanced robotic solution development, including robotic solution integration. Wicks holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Missouri and currently serves as second vice chair on the Robotics Industries Association's board of directors. He recently spoke with DC Velocity Editorial Director David Maloney.
Q: How do you view the current state of the supply chain industry?
A: E-commerce and e-retail fulfillment growth are pushing traditional warehouses and distribution centers to their limits and forcing retailers to rethink their fulfillment operations. Other factors such as labor availability—plus the fact that 60 percent of supply chain jobs require skills that just 20 percent of the work force possesses—make the challenges even more complex.
Q: As an expert in controls and automation, how do you see sensors and built-in analytics influencing the role played by controls and software in future material handling system designs?
A: Recent advances in these technologies are very exciting, because they're finally making it possible for robots to do jobs that were once considered beyond their capacity. In mobile robotics, for example, sensors and built-in analytics now enable robots to map and navigate their surroundings without any additional infrastructure. This not only reduces their costs, but it also makes them safe enough to operate in complex warehouse environments where they need to avoid people, fork-truck tines, and other obstacles.
At a higher level, sensors and analytics are helping many different types of robots make decisions faster and function more efficiently with less operator supervision. In a connected DC environment, robots can improve their own performance over time and even teach other types of robots.
Q: We hear a lot about how robots will be replacing workers in the future. Do you believe this will be the case, or do you feel that robots will work more collaboratively with people?
A: Frankly, the biggest threat to jobs isn't robots. It's not being able to keep up with the incredible changes we're seeing as a result of the e-commerce explosion. Automation is going to be critical to any operation that wants to remain competitive in this market. If your DC isn't deploying robotics now, it's not just the jobs of individual workers that are at risk; it's the survival of your entire operation.
That said, there are several other reasons we think workers can rest easy. For the immediate future, we see every sign that today's labor scarcity will tighten even further, even as e-commerce volume continues to grow at a brisk pace. So even if DCs start deploying robotic co-workers on a large scale, there are likely to be more jobs available in this market than there are qualified people to fill them for many years to come.
What's more encouraging, both today and further out, is that we don't foresee robots replacing people so much as improving their overall job prospects. At the World Economic Forum last year, for example, it was estimated that AI [artificial intelligence] and robotics will create almost 60 million more jobs than they destroy by the year 2022. In some cases, these jobs will involve the more collaborative approach you've suggested, with robots becoming part of the "team," if you will. We'll also see robots increasingly freeing people from uncomfortable, monotonous, or dangerous tasks, allowing them to take on more satisfying and fulfilling roles.
Q: What specific types of robotics are prime candidates for growth in distribution and manufacturing facilities and why?
A: Let's start with the "why" part of that question. Apart from the scarcity of labor, which is the first thing almost every employer mentions, the number-one concern we hear from the market is worker safety. Because of that, we see the greatest opportunities for robotics in jobs where automation can reduce or eliminate the risks of injury, overexertion, repetitive motion, and discomfort.
Honeywell Intelligrated's robotic unloader is a textbook example. Truck and trailer unloading is one of the most demanding and injury-prone jobs in the industry. There's a lot of heavy lifting, seasonal extremes of heat and cold, high turnover, absenteeism, and other challenges. By creating an automated solution that performs day in and day out in any weather, we can reduce injuries, even as we increase capacity and free up workers to perform safer, higher-value jobs.
Sorter induction is another prime candidate for robotics. It's a monotonous job for human workers that robots can perform faster and more efficiently. We also see opportunities in picking and transportation, and have invested in strategic collaborations for these areas.
Q: How will robotics and automation help to address an aging work force and the difficulty in finding skilled workers?
A: Robots and automation are key pieces in a larger puzzle, one that also includes connectivity and integration with existing solutions. As older workers continue to retire, taking a lot of their "tribal" knowledge with them, robots will enable newer workers to keep logistics operations performing at high levels without the need for a lot of training or technical skills.
Automation will also [enhance] the productivity of individual workers. With the robotic unloaders I mentioned earlier, for example, a single employee can manage up to five bays without breaking a sweat.
In addition to bridging the skills gap, robots in connected operations will be able to adapt more quickly to changing conditions, like new packaging or product types. Machine learning and AI will enable them to do more of their own problem solving without supervision. And once a single robot learns the solution to a new challenge, its training model can be pushed out to robots throughout your operation.
Q: Are there particular systems (hardware and software) that Honeywell Intelligrated plans to emphasize in the marketplace?
A: Honeywell Intelligrated has a wide solution set to support the transformations of the supply chain. Combining smart robotics with our ability to provide connected solutions via "The Connected Distribution Center" [Honeywell Intelligrated's asset- and performance-monitoring solution] will continue to be an area of focus, as they readily address the challenges we are seeing in the space. Our solutions will continue to innovate by leveraging these new technologies and delivering the highest value to our customers.