Ordering items online is easier than ever. But the warehousing industry has struggled to keep up with the e-commerce boom. To meet the growing demand of delivering goods across the country in a timely manner, workers’ hours have ballooned in the past decade and productivity has sagged. Logistics facilities need to increase robot automation to not only boost productivity but to also improve workers’ well-being.
Despite this need, 85 percent of companies in the transportation and warehousing industry reported, in 2020, that they do not use robotics technology during their operations. This lack of robotic adoption is concerning because these logistics facilities play a key role in distributing goods across the country and maintaining resiliency in U.S. supply chains. Policymakers need to support robotics innovation and adoption in these facilities.
Automation can help companies in the warehousing and storage industry increase their productivity and efficiency to better meet growing demand from the e-commerce industry. In order to contend with the rise of e-commerce, the challenges of processing a wider variety of goods than before, and customers’ expectations for expedited deliveries, facility managers have hired more workers to process orders. This, in turn, has caused labor productivity in the warehousing and storage industry to decline over the past decade.
Automating certain tasks within facilities, such as retrieving a good from storage or unloading a truck, can reverse this trend by helping workers increase their output and productivity, getting orders to consumers faster and supporting the distribution of goods across the country. Moreover, robotic technologies, such as automated storage and retrieval systems, enable companies to store goods in dense formats or in parts of the facility that might be hard for human workers to reach. By installing such machines, companies can store goods more efficiently than would otherwise be possible, reducing their real estate needs and minimizing their impact on the surrounding environment.
Productivity isn’t the only part of logistics facilities that robotic automation improves. Robots can automate dirty, dull, or dangerous tasks, allowing workers to transition to safer jobs. For example, DHL Supply Chain, a logistics company based in Germany, has deployed a fleet of autonomous lift trucks to store and retrieve pallets at a facility in Ohio. By automating these processes, human workers did not need to operate the machinery and could work on other tasks. Indeed, after adopting the technology, DHL Supply Chain created a new role, called a tasker, in which employees would remotely monitor the trucks.
Given the benefits of automation in logistics facilities, policymakers should enact legislation that provides warehousing and storage companies with the resources they need to innovate and incorporate robots into their operations, supports workers throughout job transitions, and promotes resiliency in U.S. supply chains. For example, Congress should restore a tax provision enabling companies to fully expense capital equipment investments in the first year. Finally, Congress should direct the Department of Commerce to establish an advisory committee to develop a strategy for supporting robotics adoption in logistics companies. Taking these steps to prioritize robotics innovation and adoption will help logistics facility workers increase their productivity and support the creation of new jobs in warehousing and storage companies and in other industries.
As e-commerce continues to grow, policymakers should ensure that companies in the warehousing and storage industry can adopt new and innovative robotics technologies to efficiently transport goods across the country efficiently, enable workers to transition to safe and more fulfilling jobs, and boost the U.S. economy as a whole.