We are increasingly hearing about logistics factories, and even entirely mechanised warehouses. What are the reasons behind this trend?
This trend is firstly down to the fact that logistics flows are becoming more complex through the advent of omnichannel, meaning the ability to service different types of distribution channels from a single warehouse. It is also caused by the need to deal with increasingly large flows and also be absolutely faultless with picking. Errors are no longer allowed, particularly in online shopping. We are observing a process whereby there are fewer intermediaries between manufacturers and end customers, and this is true in all sectors of activity. As a result, an error which affects the customer makes them unhappy and can lead to a negative reaction on social media. Another reason for increased mechanisation is delivery times. In new logistics centres, the time allotted to picking has gone from 24 hours to less than 2 hours! The emergence of digital technology in warehouses, big data, artificial intelligence and self-learning systems are all going to merge together to improve service quality and continue to drive down logistics costs.
How mature has this trend become?
A large number of sectors are having to mechanise, automate and robotise their warehouses. With mechanisation, you replace a handling task by handling conveyors and equipment. As for stock and picking robots, they can enable the automation of entire logistics processes. And in addition to these, the Internet of Things is starting to emerge in intralogistics processes. For example, certain new conveyor lines are made from smart modular units which can interact with each other. As a result, supervising them is instantaneous because each module includes a form of embedded intelligence. There are also connected telehandlers and AGVs. In warehouses, jobs will be increasingly performed by robots which will in turn be supervised and driven by smart systems. These new technologies make facilities both agile and flexible. You can move or rebuild a parcel production line in the space of a few hours. With this type of conveyor and these robots with embedded intelligence, the investment doesn’t depreciate in value anymore, because the facilities can be reconfigured as much as you want, so they last longer. This is good news for our firms! All the more so, since we have some excellent start-ups in this speciality in France.
What about on the demand side?
Large “cathedrals” which are entirely automated have existed for decades. All the main manufacturers offer “full automation” solution for high throughput and multi-channel tasks. Ten years ago, a mechanised warehouse would manage a stock of 8,000 to 10,000 product numbers, would deal with 10,000 to 15,000 orders per day and would only service one distribution channel. Today, modern warehouses manage 100,000 to 200,000 product numbers, can assemble more than 60,000 orders per day and deal with a wide and varying range of distribution channels. Where do you place the border between mechanisation and robotisation? In my opinion, we can consider that systems worth less than 10 million euros are closer to mechanisation, whereas above 10 million euros is investment, in most cases it will be a question of automated and robotised warehouses. In France it is estimated that there are already close to a hundred automated and robotised warehouses.
In what areas?
The most advanced projects today are in e-commerce and distance selling because these sectors of activity have had to cater to big increases in the volumes of mixed orders to be picked, marked seasonal variations and specific pressure on logistics costs, all of this compounded by the high service quality demanded by end customers. In the last few years, mass retail has also started to adopt automation and all the leading retail brands are currently investing hundreds of millions of euros in this area.
For the time being, cobotics has seen relatively few applications in logistics. How far do you think this will spread?
I think that cobotics is about the art of enabling people and robots to cohabit in the same production area. It has always been natural and logical to assist people with tough and strenuous working conditions. And they have recently become even tougher, because mechanisation and automation processes that have enabled workforce reductions in warehouses have in some cases led to tasks becoming even more difficult because of the increase in the volume of tasks completed by each operator. They have had an undesirable effect. This means we have to work on laying out of work stations so as to make conditions easier. And it goes without saying that cobotics is a necessity! There is therefore an obvious connection between the current trend in automation and robotisation and the need to provide help to operators who handle many more flows than before. In some warehouses, operators can handle up to 20 tonnes of goods per day!
Will drones become more widespread in warehouses?
Yes, they certainly have a gap to fill in delivering to remote locations such as villages that might become isolated due to severe snowfall, for example. This trend should become more widespread. In warehouses, we have started to see physical inventories of pallets being carried out with the help of drones. But drones can do much more than this: search for lost products, deliver products, consumables of supplies to workstations, collect low-rotation products, and guarantee the safety and security of people, installations and products through surveillance. With the advent of connected technology, drones will find their place even more naturally because they will be connected to the IT supervisor that manages logistics execution missions.
Up until now, the logistics sector has always been a means of helping people into society through work. Particularly for lower qualified workers. To what extent will we still need human operators in logistics depots?
This is true: the logistics sector has always been and will continue to be a major means of integration through employment. I know a lot of logistics business leaders who started out as an order picker, a handler or a forklift driver. An order picker can quite easily become a manager when he or she has to take on and supervise temporary workers during peak season. In 10 years, it is highly probable that our sector will no longer create jobs at a frantic rate. Today there are more than 1,800,000 employees working in jobs in logistics and supply chain management. In the next few years this figure will definitely decrease, but there will be more qualified jobs created. But I can’t see a huge drop in the number in the number of jobs in our sector. After all, the challenge of putting some very different products in the same parcel and ensuring that none of them are damaged during transport requires human intelligence on work stations. For instance, filling the same parcel with bottles of wine and packets of crisps, bars of chocolate with pots of hazelnut spread, a box of brake pads with headlight bulbs etc., is not a simple operation that can be easily automated to guarantee the right amount of protective packing. And then the development of automation and robotisation together with the emergence of digital and connected devices in warehouses is going to be source of personal development for the operators who so wish. This is why I strongly believe that our sector will remain a means of upward social mobility.
Will mechanisation, automation and robotisation technologies start to become more widespread in small and medium-sized companies?
The increase in employment costs and the conversion to two and even three-shift days makes automated systems more profitable and therefore more attractive. Yes, these technologies will become more widespread. Thanks to intelligent conveyors we will be able to dispense with expensive components such as electrical cables, devices and their programming, the design and integration of WCS. Intelligent devices will interact with each other and automatically manufacture their supervision system. Individually, this equipment is more expensive but thanks to its embedded intelligence, the overall construction cost of the system will decline. If you add a layer of artificial intelligence, Cloud and Deep Learning, connected devices will not only form a pilot system, but will also learn from their own experience to deliver better quality, faster lead times, lower costs and through this, better service. It is these expert systems that will contribute to spreading technology.