How to sustainably adopt warehouse automation in 2024, according to Plus One Robotics

Warehouse automation such as this palletizing system isn't always the answer, says Plus One Robotics.
Warehouse automation can be trained for tasks such palletizing system, but it can’t solve every problem. Source: Plus One Robotics

E-commerce is exploding, prompting retailers to examine their operations and optimize productivity. The trouble with this trend is that consumer behavior is morphing alongside demand. Modern shoppers want faster delivery and free returns, necessitating a highly agile approach to fulfillment. Furthermore, labor shortages lead to uneven throughput—especially during peak season. Warehouse automation is a wise investment to consider in response to these industry developments.

In fact, McKinsey Global Institute ranked transportation and warehousing among the Top 3 automation-ready industries.

Over half of supply chain leaders said they plan to increase their technology and automation investments this year, with 42% anticipating spending more than $10 million in 2024 to improve current logistics processes.

But what will separate successful warehouse automation investments from middling ones? The key is a careful approach to adoption, acknowledging that no two warehouses—much less retailers—are the same.

Consumer expectations drive warehouse automation

Online shopping will not abate in 2024. According to PwC, more than a third of global consumers intend to increase their discretionary spending this year. Meanwhile, 46% expect to spend more on groceries and home-improvement items.

Experts predict that online shopping will constitute about half of all consumer spending. With all consumer spending on the rise, this trend has big implications for retailers.

That’s not all. The same PwC research indicates that 42% of consumers are more likely to buy from retailers that offer efficient delivery. Many consumers have even abandoned their carts after learning they wouldn’t receive free two-day shipping. found the National Retail Federation.

These stats are critical because they suggest a powerful shift in consumer thinking. Modern consumers consider more than just products when purchasing. The convenience of fast, free shipping and returns also factors into their buying decisions.

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Retailers struggle to keep pace

Increasing digital commerce and the need for fast shipping and returns mean warehouses must find ways to operate more efficiently year-round. However, retailers have traditionally responded to increased demand by hiring to keep pace—but this approach presents another challenge.

The warehousing sector is reportedly tied with transportation as the fastest-growing industry this decade, with employment rising 47% between 2013 and 2023. Yet job openings continue to outpace available workers.

Many warehouse workers are approaching retirement, and turnover rates remain high. Labor shortages are especially prominent during peak season, which leaves many retailers unable to meet massive consumer demand.

Warehouse automation is a promising solution for increasing demand and labor shortages. For example, mobile robots or picking systems using machine vision can work night and day to meet expedited shipping timelines. They require a human in the loop to maintain efficiency, but these robots address labor shortages by decreasing the need for employees on the warehouse floor.

Other tech, such as self-driving forklifts and automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), can also bridge the gap between available work and dwindling labor.

Warehouse automation can run day and night, but consider upstream and downstream processes, says Plus One Robotics.
Warehouse automation can run day and night, but consider people in the loop and other processes. Source Plus One Robotics.

What to consider when adopting warehouse automation

Before implementing automation in their warehouses, Plus One Robotics recommends that leaders consider the following within the context of their operations.

Remain focused on long-term ROI

Warehouse automation presents persuasive return on investment (ROI), including up to 50% reductions in fulfillment costs. Leaders should consider these long-term benefits as they deploy automation or weigh the benefits of doing so.

If the upfront costs associated with warehouse automation are still too steep, consider flexible ownership models like robotics as service (RaaS). RaaS models provide retailers with robots and trained human personnel to keep them running. Importantly, RaaS scales up or down in response to business needs.

For example, a retailer might require more throughput—and therefore robots—during peak season but fewer during off months. RaaS enables retailers to accomplish variable labor models without figuring out complex labor schedules or paying for solutions they don’t always need.

Map out and understand your workflow

Most existing warehouses are built around people, which is one reason for interest in humanoid robots. However, most warehouse automation, including AMRs, isn’t bipedal, and many aren’t even dual-armed.

Logistics robots typically take up a different amount of space than humans, move differently, and have manipulation limitations. Thus, warehouses that adopt robots may require new workflows or modified facility layouts.

It’s a good idea to audit your current workflows before adopting robotic co-workers. Automation providers will typically walk you through this process during onboarding. You may determine that certain warehouses will benefit from automation, while others need to be retrofitted first.

Deploy with the right provider

The warehouse robotics space is saturated, so it’s wise to conduct due diligence before deciding whom to partner with. Essential questions to ask during this process include:

  • If AI or machine learning is a priority, what capabilities does this provider offer?
  • How quickly can this provider deploy robots in my facility?
  • Does this provider’s robotics software integrate with existing warehouse management systems (WMS) or warehouse control systems (WCS)?

Warehouse automation isn’t always the answer

Today, robots on the warehouse floor operate on task-specific AI. For example, they’ve been trained to induct, pick orders or de-palletize and excel at these tasks.

However, the same robots are probably unable to conduct unrelated physical responsibilities like inventory management—different robots would be needed for these tasks.

Likewise, warehouse robots may be impractical for certain highly controlled environments, including temperature-controlled food storage systems that require more delicate handling and constant monitoring.

Remember that humans rule

By deploying robots, retailers aren’t signaling a permanent transition from a human-led workforce. This is merely the next evolution of warehousing, retail, and production.

Leading robotics providers overwhelmingly acknowledge the superiority of human labor. Humans are not only necessary in automation-first warehouses, providing human-in-the-loop guidance for their robotic companions. They’re also pivotal to long-term warehouse strategy and execution. This is true today and will remain true forever.

By employing a pragmatic approach to adopting warehouse automation, retailers set themselves up for success during the 2024 peak season (not to mention the many years ahead). Although the future of e-commerce isn’t set in stone—its current trajectory suggests that the sooner leaders take these gradual steps toward automation, the better.

Written by

Crystal Parrott

With more than 30 years in the robotics and automation industries, Crystal Parrott, chief operating officer of Plus One Robotics, has a history of bringing emerging technologies to market. She previously served as the vice president of the Robotics Center of Excellence for Dematic Corp, where she led all robotic initiatives and guided and supported the generation of robotic solution sales in the logistic market.

Prior to joining Dematic in 2018, Parrott spent 11 years leading the development of advanced robotics technology and promoting it to create new businesses at Southwest Research Institute. Crystal holds a master of science in management of technology from the University of Texas at San Antonio, as well as a bachelor of science in electrical engineering from Kettering University.