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Wherever you look in the materials handling industry, you see a trend towards automation.
This includes things like automated guided vehicles that move materials around warehouses and manufacturing facilities without any human assistance. It also includes “cobots”, or collaborative robots, that assist their human partners in specific workplace tasks such as weighing or measuring products before packaging.
Another trend is dark warehousing, or what companies call distribution centers or other facilities that are fully automated and have no human employees at all.
The Rise of Dark Warehousing
Dark warehousing may sound a little sinister, but it’s actually the result of a very human desire: Fast, free shipping for the products we order online.
Companies like Amazon, Wal-Mart, and others are discovering that the only way they can achieve the goal of free one-day or even same-day shipping is to eliminate the human factor altogether from the delivery process. While the startup costs of building a completely automated warehouse or fulfillment center are high, fully automating the sorting, picking, packaging, and shipping of orders is not only faster, but ultimately cheaper than hiring, training, and supervising a crew of human workers.
Downsides of Dark Warehousing
The obvious downside of human-less warehouses is that there are no humans. That means no jobs, other than the minimum number of people required to repair, maintain, and monitor the robotic system in case something goes wrong — although even many of these jobs are now being performed by robots.
The owners of dark warehouses often insist that they aren’t displacing human workers, only shifting them to other jobs that require new skills that robots aren’t able to perform — yet. Yet when you fire all the human workers and replace them with robots, you can expect a little resistance from the community in which you work.
The other problem, as already mentioned, is the startup costs. Automation is expensive, especially when you are potentially replacing an entire warehouse with robotic workers. Yet dark warehouses don’t have to pay for things like wages, health insurance, vacation time, sick time, or even maintenance of break rooms or parking lots. They don’t even have to turn on the lights or heat the facility.
The Future of Dark Warehousing
Increasing pressures on businesses to deliver products faster and for free are going to force them towards more automation. While dark warehouses are not very common right now, they probably will gain in popularity as demand grows higher for online ordering.
Rather than resisting, smart companies should embrace new technologies and innovative ways of satisfying customers and being better than competitors. Dark warehouses could hold the answer.