Automation in material handling is not a new concept; in fact, automation has supported production since the loom transformed textiles in the early 19th century. More recently, as automation technology has become more capable, some are concerned about how this will influence employment. Although it certainly makes sense to consider the impact of automation on the material handling workforce, the collaboration between automated robotics and humans is not a zero-sum game.

Some low wage, non-value-added jobs can be replaced by automation, and this raises concerns that robots are stealing jobs. But, some jobs should be automated. The highly repetitive, dirty, dangerous tasks we once asked humans to fulfill can now be completed by robots, which are both safer and more efficient. This shift in responsibility frees up human employees to fill new roles more suited to their talents: humans have the capacity for creativity and decision-making to contribute at higher levels, while their robot colleagues bear the heavy loads.

Today, a person is less likely to have the same job for a lifetime. We are in the midst of the most significant technology advances since the industrial revolution, with new innovations being developed at a faster pace. New roles and responsibilities will emerge, requiring new skills and training to ensure the successful evolution of our workforce. Advancement in technology is the fuel that drives our economy forward. Just as the Luddites resisted change with the introduction of the loom, today we are similarly challenged, and must develop a process of adoption. The first step is education.

Adoption and Education

New technology is not magically adopted all at once: implementation lags for any new technology, from color TVs to smartphones. Similarly, mobile automation for material handling is introduced and integrated over time, and the industry must be educated to streamline the process.

Understanding automated operations is key for the industry to adopt new technology. Employees must see mobile robots, like automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous vision guided vehicles (VGVs), in action. They need to learn how safe the technology is, and understand how it benefits their day-to-day jobs. And as soon as a company introduces robots to the facility floor, it's important that their frontline men and women are trained to be the first generation of automated robotics operators. That kind of training will ultimately make companies more productive while making their human employees more valuable.

Instead of cutting labor, companies are finding new roles for employees whose current jobs are better suited for automated machines. Humans do not excel at highly repetitive tasks. Those who were once driving a loop, day-in and day-out, are now operating a fleet of high-tech robots.

Robotics Training Program

The new roles created by automating material handling operations do not require a Ph.D. in computer science or an engineering degree. For instance, my company's robotics training program offers monthly sessions for two days of hands-on training at our headquarters. During the course, trainees from a diverse group of companies learn safety regulations, mechanics and the software platform used to manage their VGV fleets.

These trainees are often former drivers of manual trucks. Since the VGVs are built on manual chassis, it is a natural transition for many of these drivers to learn these new skills. These employees' experiences as truck operators allow for a smooth transition into becoming automated fleet managers.

Trainees are given the hands-on experience to learn how to address technical issues to ensure the VGVs are maintained and operate as intended. To teach the VGVs to maneuver their automated routes, trainees implement automated routes themselves. Trainees are also taught to use the software platform for managing VGV fleets. This platform offers real-time status updates, remote dispatching and intersection management, and provides important data to ensure automated operations are running smoothly and efficiently. After gaining full knowledge of the inner workings of their robot co-workers, from setup to troubleshooting, trainees graduate from the two-day program fully certified.

Our robotics training program also offers education beyond this core curriculum. During the two-day session, trainees can share concerns, exchange ideas and offer perspective to their colleagues from other companies. Understanding the transition of the workforce on a larger scale is important for these employees to see the bigger picture of how automation will impact the industry.