Robot onboarding

robots in the warehouse

What is holding companies back from deploying more robots in the warehouse? The ongoing labour shortage in the Netherlands and surrounding countries is forcing companies to look at solutions for staffing warehouses and distribution centres. Attracting warehouse workers from Eastern Europe is one solution, but is increasingly encountering problems as decent and affordable housing becomes scarcer due to the current acute housing shortage.

In the past, there was still the argument that robots were too expensive. But the average price of industrial robots has fallen dramatically over the past 20 years, from nearly $70,000 in 2005 to just over $10,000 expected in 2025. The latest humanoid robot from leading supplier Boston Dynamics is no longer hydraulic but electrically powered, costing just $25,000.

The main question for companies remains where warehouse robots are best applied. Research by consultancy firm McKinsey shows that they can be used mainly for palletizing, packing, moving, storing, and loading goods. Robots increasingly provide a solution for heavy lifting, although an exoskeleton is also suitable as a lifting aid for people. Today, a variety of warehouse robots are available for different types of operations, from retrieving totes from racks to delivering them to order pickers. And by no means do all variants look like humanoid robots.

Limited experience with warehouse robots

The biggest challenge seems to be limited experience with warehouse robots. Only 14% of companies surveyed by McKinsey in 2022 have experience implementing robots in logistics and fulfilment. Like introducing new employees, the onboarding of robots in warehouses is essential for staff acceptance and proper incorporation into logistics processes. Not surprisingly, many companies using mobile robots give them personal names.

US robot scientist Kate Darling of MIT University of Technology argues that we should not compare robots to humans, but to animals such as a dog or horse. This makes it clearer that we need to train or instruct robots, and that they are not a threat but a welcome addition to the existing workforce.

Martijn Lofvers, Chief Trendwatcher Supply Chain Media
martijn.lofvers@supplychainmedia.nl