Smart warehouses and the workers who can manage them

It is the dream of some, to manage warehouses without manual labour. Not surprising given that hiring for just about any job is tough.

“The key to these properties and operations is the robotics inside the facilities,” Peter Lewis, founder and chairman of Wharton Industrial, which develops and invests in industrial properties, including warehouses, told

He talks about micro-distribution centers that span 15,000 to 45,000 square feet, with a beta facility in Brooklyn. “The installation is probably 95% automated,” he says, with manual labor putting product into bags for delivery. “I think we’re going to start to see a shift over the next couple of years towards more automation,” pushing people other than some software engineers away, “and there has to be a business person looking after of that, of course.”

But while that would solve worker recruitment problems, many other people, including those at companies that develop robotics and consult on warehouse design, operations and automation, say the goal is much more. delicate and more distant. Instead, there will be workers in increasingly complex facilities, and they will need training to acquire the necessary skills and understanding of the logistics warehouse jobs that will be required.


Warehouses have been stuck in the past for too many years, mired in old workflows and methods, leaving them vulnerable without enough help.

“What happened over the last 24 to 30 months is that we were in a manufacturing and warehousing model that was just-in-time, minimizing inventory, reducing lead times cycle, tightening everything,” says Mark Stevens, director at as well as head of manufacturing and distribution at accounting firm Wipfli. “What we found was that it was a huge tragedy.”

Everything collapsed in one supply chain after another because there was no room for problems and with low unemployment it was not possible to get enough short-term help to manually bypass hiccups. And now? There were 0.6 jobs per unemployed person in February 2022, the lowest figure since at least 2007. Forget the selection and selection of the most qualified; employers must fight for workers.

The technology promised greater efficiency, reducing the need for manual assistance. But the view of the extinguished warehouse is still far away.

“Big corporations, these deep-pocketed companies — Home Depot, Costco, Amazon — are building warehouses around new technology capabilities,” says Aviva Sonenreich, chief broker at the Warehouse Hotline in Denver. “It’s more efficient to build a property from scratch, building the warehouse that meets their direct needs rather than occupying a warehouse and adding it. I have domestic tenants, but in my experience our tenants are on the small business side. They’re just happy to have a space with a garage door.

Even the greatest may not be doing enough at a fast enough rate because the abilities still aren’t there.

“I think you could probably do corner cases now,” says Mark Messina, CEO of robotics company Addverb America. “But it certainly doesn’t move the needle at all. When we start to see something that is scalable or that other companies could adopt, personally I would say at least eight years. It’s not just technology. There are regulations regarding packaging and safety issues. This is a complex problem to solve for an industry that is slow to change because it does not want to increase costs and is worried about timing.

But there will be change because there will be no realistic choice. The future will need specially trained personnel, which means more than learning to follow instructions from a mobile device about what to choose.


To understand the skills that warehouse workers will need and how companies will need to attract and retain them, it is necessary to begin to envision the probable and practical future of warehouses.

Why not automate everything? Because it is not yet feasible. “We managed to manage the fruits at hand,” says Messina. “Even stacking boxes in a truck is a handy fruit. But the hardest part that requires more tact is not yet solved. How do you decant those boxes that come in to get singular items? If you have a box of 12 candles, [automation of] the shipment is not yet resolved. Opening a box is not easy to do. If you think about the return process, reverse logistics, that’s a whole other ball of wax.

Automation is often a second level of problem solving that requires further groundwork.

“As a consultant, we get asked a lot to step in and analyze facility automation,” says Kirk Waldrop, managing director of business transformation and procurement and supply chain practice at Grant Thornton. “We find that nine times out of 10 the problem will be solved by improving processes, improving processes, improving process discipline. At a minimum, they need a good storage system.

Plus, it’s easy to let assumptions fly away. More complex robotic material handling is possible, but they are not solutions in themselves. “If you don’t take people, processes and technology and bring them together, it may not be profitable,” says Waldrop. “I’ve had clients who over-automated their facilities to the point that they had no flexibility. If something went wrong they were stuck and couldn’t get the product out. »

The reverse error is also possible. Small businesses might think that automation and robotics are only for big business.

“Small businesses, it depends on their business model and where they stand among their peers,” Messina says. “If they’re looking for competitive advantage, generally things that are small and diverse, of a particular geometric size and high diversity, are really good for automation. If you need to maximize your space, automation is great. A warehouse can more easily change its picking rate or increase and decrease over the course of the year. “I’ve had discussions with players who have looked into automation. Even though the ROI is only 18 months and can give them a big improvement in their bottom line, they don’t have a lot of compete and are fat and stupid and happy. Sure, I could make more money, but that means I have to do it and what if it doesn’t work out?”

The need for people who can work in more automated warehouses will only increase, as even small businesses will find more and more already automated warehouses that they can rent. Lewis recently invested in a 1.5 million square foot industrial park in Mesa, Arizona. “They are clinging to new era businesses and these warehouses with offices are being created to serve them as well,” he says.

Increasingly, serving small businesses will mean providing the capabilities they need to stay competitive. “There is a trend towards, and I have seen this recently, some real estate companies partnering with technology companies, automation technologies as well as equipment and software providers, to build spec warehouses that are largely if not fully automated,” Waldrop said. Tailor-made for each company? This doesn’t have to be the case when many businesses have similar material handling needs – things on shelves that need to be placed, retrieved, gathered for ordering, and shipped.


This raises the question of how to get employees the skills that warehouses need. According to experts, there must be a fundamental shift from the idea that people in warehouses are only meant to follow orders that flash on a screen and have no technical sophistication.

“The idea that we don’t have tech-savvy people is crazy,” Stevens says, noting how comfortable most will be with a smartphone, which is a powerful laptop. “The technical side is the easiest part. Companies recognize that they can train anyone on the technology. You have to find people with the right skills. It is integrity and personal initiative; communications and active listening; the conceptual competence of someone who solves his own problems; Client orientation; and the ability to work with others.

“One of the things the industry hasn’t done so well is that entry-level jobs are being positioned as jobs, not a career path,” said Douglas Kent, executive vice president of the strategy and alliances at the Association for Supply Chain Management. What companies need people to do in warehouses is much more complex than just tracking orders. “Someone needs to determine at the shift level what the outgoing requirements are, how I get the limited resources of materials, labor and equipment to align with the forecasted demand. These are learned skills. Someone must be able to understand how incoming demand is represented, the volatility and predictability of demand, and how to plan to meet customer expectations. »

This also affects the retention of employees. “If I don’t make people feel like they’re getting an education that’s important to them and providing usable skill sets, it’s going to be an in and out job,” says Kent.

In other words, let people see the important context of what they’re doing. “They have a higher cause,” Stevens says. “You choose medical devices to save lives. There is a higher cause and a higher purpose.

And make positions acceptable beyond a given wage rate. “There’s more pressure, even at the hourly wage level, for a better work-life balance,” says Waldrop, who recalls a manufacturer who had a “huge” absenteeism rate in the factory. warehouse, until management asked the employees what they wanted. “They wanted to move to a four-day work week or even weekend shifts.” The result, “Absenteeism just dropped and productivity went up. Businesses need to be creative and not be afraid to talk to people and see what they want.

Help people learn the specific skills, treat them with respect, and you can solve your labor and warehouse issues at the same time.

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