Warehouses Look to Robots to Fill Labor Gaps, Speed Deliveries

The robots are coming to labor-strapped North American warehouses.

Growing numbers of self-driving machines are shuttling clothing and sports equipment down warehouse aisles, pulling bins of groceries, cosmetics and industrial parts from high stacks and handing off goods to human workers to help deliver orders faster. Some logistics operators are testing forklifts that can be operated from remote locations, allowing employers in tight labor markets to draw from a geographically broader pool of workers.

The push toward automation comes as businesses say they can’t hire warehouse workers fast enough to meet surging online demand for everything from furniture to frozen food in pandemic-disrupted supply chains. The crunch is accelerating the adoption of robots and other technology in a sector that still largely relies on workers pulling carts.

“This is not about taking over your job, it’s about taking care of those jobs we can’t fill,” said

Kristi Montgomery,

vice president of innovation, research and development for Kenco Logistics Services LLC, a third-party logistics provider based in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Kenco is rolling out a fleet of self-driving robots from Locus Robotics Corp. to bridge a labor gap by helping workers fill online orders at the company’s largest e-commerce site, in Jeffersonville, Ind. The company is also testing autonomous tractors that tow carts loaded with pallets.

To save on labor and space at a distribution center for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning equipment, the company is installing an automated storage and retrieval system set to go online this fall that uses robots to fetch goods packed closely together in dense rows of stacks.

Kenco and France-based logistics provider Geodis SA are also testing remote-operated forklifts equipped with technology from startup Phantom Auto that drivers can operate remotely using real-time video and audio streams.

A worker at France-based logistics provider Geodis controls warehouse forklifts from a remote location using technology from Phantom Auto.



The technology allows operators to switch between vehicles in different locations depending on demand, opening up those jobs to workers in various regions. It could also let Kenco access untapped sections of the labor market, such as people who are physically disabled, Ms. Montgomery said.

Logistics-automation companies say demand for their technology has grown during the pandemic as companies look for ways to cope with big swings in volume when workers are scarce and social distancing requirements limit building occupancy.

“Robots are beginning to fill that void,” said

Dwight Klappich,

a supply-chain research vice president at Gartner Inc. The technology-research firm forecasts that demand for robotic systems that deliver goods to human workers will quadruple through 2023.

“We have been benefiting from that significantly since the second half of last year,” said

Jerome Dubois,

co-founder and co-chief executive of…

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