How automation can help prevent a festive washout

With retailers warning of higher prices and empty shelves this Christmas, there’s an increasing focus on the global supply chain and how well it can cope under pressure. For firms operating in the UK, the problem is two-fold. Not only are import delays forcing some to temporarily close sites or cut back on service levels, a combination of COVID-19, Brexit and other factors have created a severe labour, warehouse operative and lorry driver shortage.

Here, Joe Daft, head of robotics at Wise Robotics, explores how without a high level of automation, warehousing firms will struggle to meet the festive demands, especially in the face of such acute challenges.

It’s not just the UK experiencing problems. Since March 2020, the global supply chain has been creaking under pressure. The past 18 months have exposed a number of issues with trade restrictions leading to temporary shortages and often, long delays.

As a result, manufacturers are under pressure to increase their domestic production and reduce their reliance on sources that are perceived as ‘risky’. For UK businesses, the challenge is even greater with Brexit creating worker shortages across an array of different industries.

Throughout 2020 and 2021, thousands of workers left the haulier, warehousing and manufacturing sectors, with many firms struggling to recruit a replacement workforce. In the most extreme case, this resulted in a week of consumer panic buying amid reports of a shortage of tanker drivers.

While it’s the shortage of hauliers making frontpage news, research also suggests that in 2021 the number of qualified forklift truck operators in the UK was estimated to be down by some 25 per cent on the number actually required to effectively run the nation’s forklift fleet. Close to a third of Britain’s remaining forklift drivers are said to be EU nationals; therefore, the decision to limit overseas workers’ access to the UK jobs market means that the situation is only likely to become worse.

This shortage stands to create significant disruption within UK warehouses, with forklift drivers a key component, required to move heavy and palletised stock.

Despite the government taking action and agreeing to increase the number of temporary visas available to seasonal agricultural workers and hauliers, there’s still warnings of shortages this Christmas. Even if the products can be packed and processed within the factory, there’s still the logistical challenge of getting them onto the shelves. There’s also reports that the cost of a family Christmas will soar as delays and shortages push up prices.

It remains unclear how attractive temporary visa schemes will be to EU nationals and as we approach the festive seasons, manufacturers need to take action to make efficiency savings wherever possible.

According to recent reports, the UK is facing its worst labour shortage since 1997 and this includes warehouse staff. Despite these challenges, orders still have to be fulfilled and customers continue to expect easy online ordering and rapid delivery.

Last year, Morrissons offered some consumers the option to order last minute essentials online as late as 5:30pm on Christmas Eve. These orders would then be processed and delivered within 30 minutes via Deliveroo. Without a high level of warehouse automation, it’s near impossible to meet such tight turnaround times. But seasonal challenges involving labour and meeting delivery fulfillment, is nothing new and has been a real challenge for businesses for years. A long-term solution has to be found.

To overcome the challenges of meeting peak order fulfillment while managing the costs when activity in the warehouse drops off, many businesses are seeking to automate key processes, with flexible AMR based robotics solutions becoming an obvious choice to meet their needs.

Autonomous robots are quicker and more accurate at moving products, as well as being able to work around the clock. Once up and running, these solutions are far more cost-effective and can help businesses cope with surges in demand, without having to rely on recruiting and training a team of new operatives, year-in year-out.

Prior to the pandemic, it was estimated that around 90 per cent of picking was performed manually. Automated mobile robots (AMR) can increase productivity and are proving an increasingly attractive proposition for those looking to scale up and down when demand dictates.

In the UK, manual picking rates tend to range from 100-250 picks per hour, but depending on the set-up and the nature of the items being picked, that can increase to over 600 with robots and automation.

For warehousing firms dealing with heavier or larger items many still remain reliant on forklift drivers, potentially creating problems given the ongoing disruption created by the driver shortage. These businesses will benefit significantly from implementing automated forklift solutions, such as the F4. This is the natural next step and will help firms cope with spikes in demand as they head towards the busier festive period.

Designed to move palletised stock in the warehouse, these solutions can work alongside warehouse operatives, existing materials handling equipment and pallet racking – offering a hybrid approach to order picking and packing. There’s no need to worry about down time either, as these solutions can run for a full shift before quickly charging, ensuring that you can always meet operational demands.

As warehousing firms approach their busiest period, it’s essential that they conduct a review of their operations, identifying areas that may struggle to cope with a surge in demand or be impacted by the shortage of workers. Automation is going to be key to alleviating this pressure and I expect we will see more warehouses adopting materials handling technology and automated forklift solutions over the next few years.

For more information about Wise Robotics automated warehouse solutions visit wiserobotics.com

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