EVP Sales & Solutions
Thomas H. Evans, Ph.D.
Robotics Chief Technology Officer
Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions
CEO & President
R&D Software Engineering Manager
VP of Marketing
6 River Systems
Exotec North America
Head of Marketing
Senior Director, AGV Sales
Senior Director Robotics
Director Business Development Marketing
VP of Business Development & Strategy
Co-Founder & CEO
VP of Sales
Q: The terms “automation” and “robotics” are used almost interchangeably these days. How do you define the two, and is one a subset of the other?
Ally Lynch – Covariant: Robotics is a specialty that focuses on physical robotic hardware—think robot arms or delta robots. But a robot in itself is not necessarily automated or autonomous. Automation—the ability for a robot to perform a task without human intervention—can be broken down into two main categories: classical and AI (artificial intelligence)-based. Classical is driven by pre-programming tasks or using an expansive table that dictates actions. With AI-based automation, robots can learn by leveraging past experiences to see, understand, and continuously adapt.
Dean Priebe – Dematic: All robotics are a subset of automation, though not all automation is considered robotics. There are apparent overlaps that experts can debate, but I like to say that we need to integrate robotics into fully integrated automation solutions as an industry. This is where the magic lies.
Rudi Lueg – Exotec North America: While there is some overlap between warehouse robotics and warehouse automation, we view them as two distinct approaches to solving different logistics problems. Legacy warehouse automation is typically project-specific, is built on site, and consists of heavy static mechanics. Robotics, on the other hand, is adaptable to different projects, built in factories, and mobile.
Kevin Reader – Knapp: I think there has been a tendency to put a lot of spin on the term “robot” in recent years—to use it interchangeably—as a marketing term to describe almost anything that moves. At a high level, automation is all about using technology to accomplish the tasks that have been formerly done by humans—such as assembly robots that served to accomplish repeatable tasks, usually with a limited set of variables. More-sophisticated robots are now entering the realm and automating the tasks of the hands—order picking, for instance. This is a far more complicated application.
Brian Markison – Logisnext: Automation is reducing or eliminating human involvement within a process, whereas robotics is a tool that is used in automating a process.
Kristiyan Georgiev – MHS: Although the term “mechanization” is often used to refer to the simple replacement of human labor by machines, automation generally implies the integration of machines into a self-governing system. Automation has revolutionized those areas in which it has been introduced, and there is scarcely an aspect of modern life that has been unaffected by it. We integrate robotics as tools to solve complex automation tasks. Robotics is a subset of automation.
Q: Does the industry have the design and engineering talent it needs to push automation capabilities forward?
Fergal Glynn – 6 River Systems: It wasn’t too long ago that the warehouse was the last place you’d go to find something new. But supply chain technology has become fashionable. Investment is surging—entrepreneurs and top talent from the best schools are entering our industry, challenging assumptions and rethinking approaches.
A.K. Schultz – SVT Robotics: It’s clear that there is a shortage of people who are both educated in the domain and have the technical skills to move automation forward to meet industry demand. Part of the reason is that our industry’s technology platforms aren’t really built to be easy to learn, so platforms that enable smart, capable people from other industries to succeed quickly are going to be extremely important as we move forward.
Kevin Reader – Knapp: The logistics industry does have the talent to push automation capabilities forward, and it’s doing so at a rapid rate, but the ability to deliver at scale is a bit more problematic. We’re entering a very challenging stage right now where we see a confluence of factors that will enable us to achieve quantum leaps in automation and robotics. At the same time, market forces are driving demand to an all-time high and creating a significant gap in the ability for the industry to deliver and meet that demand.
Saif Sabti – SSI Schaefer: The talent and know-how are there, but demand is by far outpacing the supply. In addition, technology is evolving at such a fast pace that colleges and universities are not able to keep up with what’s current. This leads to new grads needing significant on-the-job training before they are productive. Universities need to partner with leading companies to gain this experience within the market and develop solid programs with real benefit.
Mike Futch – Tompkins Robotics: There is already a huge need for new talent. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projections show the job market for robotics/automation engineers growing at a rate of 9% from 2016 through 2026, which equates to the addition of 25,300 jobs over the forecast period. The capabilities of new robotics rely on these positions to be filled by experience and quality talent.
Q: Labor is tough to find in nearly every market. What are some innovative ways that your company is finding the labor you need?
Rudi Lueg – Exotec North America: Offering competitive pay and good benefits has become table stakes. More often than not, what it really comes down to is building and maintaining a strong culture. For example, all employees must assemble a robot when they start with the company to get first-hand experience with the product. We also try to maintain our culture by being very selective in our hiring process. For example, all new employees need to have a foundational understanding of engineering and strong critical thinking skills, two things that we highly value.
Kristiyan Georgiev – MHS: With regard to attracting skilled, motivated software developers in R&D, we emphasize the applied aspect of the work. Each individual contributor gets to see his/her work deployed in the field. Team building, collaboration, and technical growth are in our DNA.
Saif Sabti – SSI Schaefer: The advantage our company has is our impressive installations and how cool our technology solutions are. We incorporate software, robotics, vision, and mechanization at a massive scale. There is a sense of awe when you tour an automated customer site. So, our focus is on recruiting events to spread the word about our company and our working family team culture that is based on collaborating with many disciplines across geographies.
Nathan Wolf – TGW: In the current market, you have to be flexible and proactive in finding and retaining talent. Tables have turned a bit where a candidate is no longer selling themself to the company, but rather, the company is selling itself to the candidate. This means being willing to provide not just a highly competitive compensation and benefits package, but also intangibles that draw a candidate to the company. These intangibles could be flexible work scenarios and improved work/life balance benefits.
Q: How can automation attract and retain labor within a facility?
Fergal Glynn – 6 River Systems: Associates want to work with robots! We’ve had several customers tell us that their teams ask to be assigned to work that involves our collaborative mobile robot. In terms of retention, once you get past the cool factor of working alongside a robot, it simply makes the job better—it’s easier to be productive and it’s less physically taxing. Robots help put associates in a position to succeed.
Rick DeFiesta – Geek+ America: Automation can accomplish tasks that are either unsafe or unpleasant, while creating more skilled jobs in a warehouse or factory setting. It provides the workforce with better working conditions, including less physical exertion and less-repetitive tasks.
Ally Lynch – Covariant: Operators tell us that a huge value-add of AI-based automation is its capacity to handle repetitive, strenuous tasks best done by machines. When employees see that their employer is applying innovative methods to enable them to focus on higher-value work better done by humans, it becomes a more attractive work environment. Automation to reduce injury and enable upskilling is a win-win for everyone.
A.K. Schultz – SVT Robotics: A key benefit of automation is the ability to automate dangerous and tedious tasks, making the work environment safer, more comfortable, and more interesting. For instance in a fulfillment center, a lot of times people are walking five miles or more a day, and not everyone is capable of doing that. A lot of automation also takes on the role of bending, twisting, and lifting things—movements that can be a major source of injuries. So, by removing a lot of the tedious work, more people will be able to participate in a job that is safe and provides a much more enjoyable work experience overall.
Brian Markison – Logisnext: It can reduce or eliminate the repetitive tasks that are boring for a human to do day in and day out. It allows the employees to focus on higher-value or more complex tasks that would engage the mind of the employee and provide greater job satisfaction.
Q: How can gamification be used in automation to provide a more enjoyable work environment?
A.K. Schultz – SVT Robotics: Everybody wants to know if they’re “winning” or “losing.” I think that’s why we like sports, to see the clear winner. You can gamify some of the work roles to aid in letting people know if they’re succeeding. Employees can’t improve if they don’t know where their opportunities for improvement lie. It’s something we need as human beings; we need praise, so gamification can absolutely help.
Dean Priebe – Dematic: There are some tremendous operational planning applications, such as automation, that enable team gamification. Team-building and gamification uses automation to help teams find increased productivity and collaboration. With real-time software systems, which are part of today’s fully integrated systems, the data and information allow operational teams to develop new gamification strategies.
Rick DeFiesta – Geek+ America: People are generally competitive. It’s becoming more common to display dashboards showing productivity by teams or individuals. This can also lead to additional incentives being paid out.
Saif Sabti – SSI Schaefer: You can’t improve what you don’t measure, and automated systems provide a number of dashboards that drive self and team improvement in an intuitive, graphical way. In a sense, it’s similar to the gratification you get if your smart watch shows you that you closed your movement rings or achieved your workout goals.
Mike Futch – Tompkins Robotics: Automation can be gamified with the addition of a reward system for making the mundane tasks seem like a game, and “unlocking achievements” with awards, badges, and extra privileges, as well as adding a competitiveness feature for fellow workers.
Q: Will we ever see true lights-out facilities without human involvement?
Thomas H. Evans – Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions: Lights-out facilities are a goal of many; however, there are several critical milestones in robotics, sensing and control, and IT that need to be developed and integrated to make this a reality. The industry has progressed significantly in innovation and technology. However, it is going to take an immense effort and additional technology breakthroughs to advance autonomous systems and artificial intelligence to make full lights-out facilities an operational reality.
Rudi Lueg – Exotec North America: I find the idea of lights-out facilities to be quite dystopian, not to mention hard to execute. There are certain tasks and functions that people are just inherently better at than machines. Automating problem-solving and the type of critical thinking that is required when things don’t go as planned is an insurmountable technical challenge. I believe we will continue to see higher levels of automation, but there will always be a “light in the building” for human intervention.
Nathan Wolf – TGW: There are many automation offerings available that are and will be the foundation for a true lights-out facility. With advances in the integration of your traditional automation sources (shuttles, conveyors, cranes, sortation, etc.), robotics, machine learning, and software—all of those items working together provide an incredibly powerful system that would allow for a lights-out facility.
Mike Futch – Tompkins Robotics: If we continue on the path of automated systems and subsystems, this can become a reality in some situations. But robots are not as good as humans in getting some tasks done. Some products and processes do not lend themselves to being easily automated. What is realistic is that about 80% to 90% of tasks in a typical fulfillment operation can be automated. However, 100% is rarely achievable.
Q: How do you counter the notion that automation will take jobs away from humans?
Kevin Reader – Knapp: Industry factors are placing demands on retailers and manufacturers that cannot be met with the current labor force, which is again nearing structural unemployment levels [structural unemployment is unemployment resulting from changes in an economy and its labor force, including technological change]. Businesses are also fraught with organizational and employment challenges, including the impact of an aging workforce in North America. So, automation trends are inevitable, and it’s important that, from a societal perspective, we consider the factors and impacts around this discussion and as a culture develop tools and policies that address the inevitability of change as it invariably impacts various sectors in different ways and at different times.
Fergal Glynn – 6 River Systems: The goal is not to take jobs away, but to make the job easier: easier to learn; easier to be productive, accurate, and efficient; easier on the body. Warehouse associates push and pull a lot of weight across long distances. That impacts productivity, health and safety, and ultimately an operation’s ability to quickly ramp up to meet demand. Those are the big [problems] we’re out to solve, not how to take jobs away.
Rudi Lueg – Exotec North America: I often encounter the myth that robotics will eventually control humans or kill jobs. I highly doubt it. Rather, I believe we are at the turning point in the latest industrial revolution that will enable machines to empower humans. Put in a different light, most individuals reading this consume food that they do not grow, harvest, and prepare. This was not the norm multiple generations ago—all of our ancestors were farmers. Technology changed the way we procure food so that we had more time to do different kinds of work. I think the same is true with supply chain automation.
A.K. Schultz – SVT Robotics: There’s a great macroeconomic example we can look at for why automation will actually drive jobs rather than take them, and that’s with perhaps the earliest “roboticist,” Henry Ford. His assembly line utilized processes and machines to do things that made it possible for humans to be more efficient, which essentially laid the foundation for modern robotics in the assembly line. I’m sure there were many people who worried he would eliminate jobs, but his gains weren’t used to cut labor. Rather, they allowed him to make more cars at a lower price, which in turn made them affordable for most everyone.
Q: What advice do you give your clients on teaching employees to work alongside collaborative robots, or “cobots”?
Dean Priebe – Dematic: Identify team members who will be working alongside the system early in the project. With their involvement and participation, they will learn and understand the technology. With understanding comes confidence, ownership, and productivity. Having the robot viewed as a “team member” enables the team to fully utilize and leverage the cobot for greater success.
Kristiyan Georgiev – MHS: Cobots should be seen as a helper that can make you more productive, and hence more valuable to the company. Those who embrace the future will become a bigger part of it.
Saif Sabti – SSI Schaefer: Oftentimes, employees are fearful of the impact automation will have on their jobs, and having a clear transformation plan is critical. Also, what we see work is to initially introduce systems to a facility in the form of a pilot, which is then followed by a full rollout. Change management is much easier when done in stages and when employees see the benefits, giving them buy-in.
Nathan Wolf – TGW: Working alongside a cobot comes down to a few items, but namely training and understanding. People need to understand how the cobot is going to work during operation. Education on how a cobot “makes decisions” is critical to ensure people are comfortable with the technology.
Mike Futch – Tompkins Robotics: Cobots and AI should be promoted as being helpful, to work alongside workers, providing suggestions or mechanical muscle when needed. As robotic technology becomes more widespread and deployment costs fall, businesses will realize that they can drive efficiency by deploying robots in environments that are unsafe or inhospitable to humans. Employees should be encouraged to provide feedback on their interactions with cobots. Improvements to the cobots can be quickly deployed if feedback from the facility is constant and constructive.
Q: Does automation require workers with more skills or does it simplify jobs?
Ally Lynch – Covariant: It requires something else. It requires us to reimagine what a job is and the essential skills for a worker to have. It’s not about more skills; it’s about workers getting really good at things that only humans can do, like complex problem-solving and contextual decision-making. Classical automation has long dominated the mainstream understanding of the future of jobs. However, AI-enabled automation is wholly different. It’s going to bring a brand-new generation of intelligent co-workers for us to collaborate and partner with so that both parties can do more together.
Fergal Glynn – 6 River Systems: First and foremost, it simplifies front-line jobs. Picking orders accurately and efficiently is simply easier. That makes it easier to recruit, train, and retain associates, which is terrific. Depending on the customer, new skills may be helpful in understanding how to act on the wealth of data insights we provide.
Brian Markison – Logisnext: I believe it demands more skills. The focus on automation has been tasks that are repeatable and predictable, freeing workers to focus on higher-value or complex tasks that require human intervention to complete.
Rick DeFiesta – Geek+ America: It’s a combination of both. Automation simplifies existing warehouse operations jobs in a variety of ways, such as lessening the chance of order fulfillment errors, reducing or eliminating walking, or negating the need for heavy lifting. As a result, automation makes warehouse operations jobs safer and more enjoyable. On the other hand, automation requires technical expertise to implement and maintain the entire system. For project or warehouse managers, they may need to learn new skills to ensure the system remains operational, productive, and efficient.
Thomas H. Evans – Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions: The deployment of autonomous systems and advanced robotics requires a more skilled workforce to deploy, monitor, and optimize the systems and then adjust or maintain them as needed. Advanced technology helps the operation of the business, but it does require the upfront skills to understand how to use the system and integrate it with the overall operation.
Kevin Reader – Knapp: The short answer is yes! At the heart of this discussion is that best-in-class automation is generally not about automating all the manual processes that exist, but about re-engineering processes, both physical and logical. In this way, process time is reduced, costs and waste are reduced, and process steps are generally reduced as well. Within the context of “change management,” you can expect different competencies and skills to be required.
Q: What are some of the more interesting labor-saving applications of automated technology you’ve seen?
Rick DeFiesta – Geek+ America: Goods-to-person is the most efficient use of labor. With travel taking 40% or more of the time a picker spends in a day and all the time lost hunting for locations, GTP basically eliminates that.
Brian Markison – Logisnext: We have seen a trend of customers replacing their existing DCs and building a new DC with significant investments in automation to combat the labor shortage issue. We have a customer that condensed four DCs into one new DC that will have 90+% of the material handling automated and will only use labor for truck loading/unloading and for some case picking.
Kevin Reader – Knapp: More recently, we have seen the rapid emergence of grocery microfulfillment technologies. Manually filling grocery orders to meet e-commerce demand in this market is a flat-out money loser for grocers based on the labor component alone. The cost of building a microfulfillment center (MFC) attached to a grocery store, for example, is one-quarter [the cost of building] a new store, so the MFC can be a stellar investment.
Kristiyan Georgiev – MHS: To name a few: truck loading and unloading; palletizing and depalletizing; bin picking; automated storage and retrieval using AMRs; and robotic parcel singulation.
Dean Priebe – Dematic: Robotics and automation have always been part of the long-term strategy for companies, but the pandemic fast-forwarded the timeline. Throughout 2020, we saw an increase in the business case for full-enterprise solutions, which allowed companies to meet customer demand.
Thomas H. Evans – Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions: Dock unloading is a prime task for automation, but only if the solution delivers a combination of rate and package care comparable to manual processes. Through machine learning, computer vision, and advanced gripping technology, unloading and depalletizing systems help improve throughput by operating consistently without interruption over multiple shifts with minimal human interaction.
Saif Sabti – SSI Schaefer: Predictive labor management systems that enable dynamic workforce allocation are interesting. Aside from the operational benefits of work balancing, it leads to higher employee satisfaction as workload is more “fairly” distributed.
Q: More automation means that there is a greater need for technicians to keep it all running. What must be done to attract more technicians to the industry?
Brian Markison – Logisnext: This has been a challenge for material handling [equipment] dealers for decades. The push to encourage young people to go to college has reduced the interest in becoming a technician. There is no quick-fix answer, but one part of it is getting the word out to high school students that becoming a technician for automated systems is a great career path.
Rick DeFiesta – Geek+ America: On a micro level, established industry regulations help standardize many aspects of warehouse automation implementation and maintenance, thus enabling a more consistent understanding of the necessary job skills and requirements for technicians. This makes it easier for technicians to grow professionally with their craft and will ultimately make the [career path] more attractive. On a macro level, as more industries and companies embrace automation, we’ll see a parallel growth in education and training programs for technician roles.
Rudi Lueg – Exotec North America: I think one of the best things you can do as an executive in this space is to make yourself available for mentorship opportunities. Whether it’s connecting with the new crop of students through educational institutions or making time to meet aspiring engineers during networking events, it’s our responsibility to ensure that the next generation of talent has all the tools that they need to succeed in this industry.
A.K. Schultz – SVT Robotics: I’ve witnessed a massive shortage of mechatronics technicians, which is unfortunate because there is a huge need for this right now. Unfortunately, school systems are creating fewer vocational schools or apprenticeship programs in mechatronics, which would help build the necessary industry skills.
Nathan Wolf – TGW: I think people need to be educated on the fact that it is an exciting and growing industry with great career opportunities. When thinking of automation, most people think of the engineering side, but the technician side is just as important. Without well-trained technicians keeping the automation running at its best, the user does not realize the full benefit. That is why trade/technical schools should partner with automation companies to help build curriculums around supporting the installation and support of automation. Then this curriculum needs to be promoted to help build awareness of its availability and potential.
Q: How will machine learning and artificial intelligence help reduce the reliance on human labor?
Ally Lynch – Covariant: In our view, it’s less about reducing the reliance and instead, helping humans do their best work possible. Right now, we’re at a peak of AI being applied in the workplace, and simultaneously, we’re also facing the highest number of open jobs the U.S. has seen in recent years. We need people as much as we always have. AI isn’t reducing reliance; it’s changing what that reliance looks like.
Fergal Glynn – 6 River Systems: I don’t know that machine learning and AI will necessarily reduce reliance on human labor. Our goal is to help our customers optimize the allocation of their existing labor, to understand when and where people are needed. In short, we want to help them put the right people in the right place at the right time, and we will do the rest.
Thomas H. Evans – Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions: Machine learning and artificial intelligence will continually utilize operational data and insights to increase the reliability and performance of automation solutions and robotic systems. As systems using AI become more advanced and can draw accurate inferences on how to act and react to dynamic changes in the warehouse and DC space, there will be less reliance on human labor and human intervention.
Mike Futch – Tompkins Robotics: In manufacturing, one-third of a worker’s time is devoted to operating machinery or performing physical tasks. These tasks range from sorting products to loading products into shipping containers. With AI and machine learning, it is estimated that 59% of all manufacturing activities could be automated. Transportation also represents an area where AI and machine learning are producing major innovations, such as letting drivers and vehicles know about upcoming roadblocks, road construction, or other possible traffic impediments. Vehicles can take advantage of the experience of other vehicles on the road, without human involvement.