Film franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek have often portrayed robots – and not just as technical helpers in these science-fiction worlds, but often as colleagues and friends. It is likely to be some time before we achieve such heights in reality, but robotics is already having a marked impact on the role of humankind in the workplace.
The concern that robots could destroy jobs is in stark contrast to the increasingly common shortage of employees. “Many members of the workforce are between 50 and 55 years of age,” stated Winnie Ahrens, a robotics expert at Dematic, a provider of integrated automation solutions, to food-industry publication Lebensmittel Zeitung*. When, in about 10 to 15 years, this cohort enters retirement, there is likely to be a significant shortfall in the labor market – one that automation and robots could help to make up.
And this is where companies such as Dematic come into play. The automation specialist is working hard on the development of advanced robots for intralogistics purposes. For instance, it is currently creating software that would allow entire fleets of AGVs to operate autonomously, and developing algorithms that can be deployed for both inbound and outbound goods. In addition, using state-of-the-art 3D cameras and sensors, robots can learn to pick a broad variety of items, very much like a human worker: “Currently, we can handle around 80 percent of SKUs automatically,” explains Ahrens. By performing repetitive tasks, robots ease the workload on humans and enable more efficient processes. They therefore create openings for other, more enriching activities – for example, the deployment of robots in warehouses means greater demand for skilled professionals with the ability to monitor and manage them. This opens up new career opportunities to which the world of work must, however, first become accustomed.
Robots meet humans
But robots can also be genuine team players. Picking systems such as the autonomous iGo neo from STILL follow their human colleagues at an adjustable distance. It may not sound ground-breaking, but this allows increases in picking rates of as much as 30 percent. It is a prime example of how robots and humans can successfully collaborate in warehouses. In other words, robots will play a central role in industrial scenarios in the future. But they will not be displacing human beings so much as helping them, and opening up new possibilities for them.