Even before COVID-19, the logistics world was already experiencing steady growth in the e-commerce sector. The pandemic only served to compound the situation, with the resulting supply chain disruption making life quite challenging for warehouse managers and others responsible for getting products to consumers quickly, accurately, and cost-effectively. Couple this with an ongoing labor shortage, and the argument for smart, easily deployed automation has become compelling indeed.
Stephanie Cannon is making that argument. As the senior vice-president of operations excellence and collaborative innovation at Pitney Bowes, she is responsible for evaluating and implementing innovative technology throughout the company’s global e-commerce business unit. As she will tell you, robotics has proven to be a game-changer for this century-old, publicly-traded employer of nearly 15,000.
On an episode of In The Loop, Cannon shared her thoughts on automation with host Brent Barcey, vice-president of sales and business development at Plus One Robotics. The two discussed the rise of Robots as a Service (RaaS) and its flexibility when scaling to meet seasonal demands, as well as touchy subjects like how automation impacts workforce development. She also offered several predictions for the future of automation.
Some highlights of the interview include:
[1:54] What’s all the buzz about Robots as a Service, and how is Pitney Bowes using it to drive down costs while bringing scalability and flexibility to the business and its customer base? Also, what impact does RaaS have on Capex budgets and cash flow?
[4:26] Given the speed at which the e-commerce industry is moving, it’s necessary to constantly change and evolve. Technology like autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) helps avoid massive investments in steel, belts, motors, and all the static infrastructure needed with static conveyance systems. Moreover, AMR is easily adaptable to changing business conditions, so won't become obsolete in a few years.
[7:09] Investment also means investing in people and talent, and helping them to become a crucial component of any automation solution. Before peak season last year, Pitney Bowes was sitting at around 27% permanent employees. This year, the company is up to 50% permanent employees versus contingent or temporary workforce, with a corporate goal of 70% full-time employees by next year. Who says automation takes jobs?
[10:41] You'd be surprised how many of our workers are calling their friends and family to brag about their cool job, and how they get to work with robots all day. Some are even taking selfies to share with others, which just goes to show the level of excitement and pride they have working for a progressive company.
[12:38] It’s not rocket science, though. A platform based on RaaS and AMR can be deployed very quickly. Whether it’s a brownfield or greenfield installation, the approach will look identical, thanks primarily to a dedicated team that collaborates with everyone involved. There are no science experiments.
[16:00] Stubbing your toe happens. It doesn’t mean you scrap the project, though. Automation is a journey of continuous improvement, pivoting when you need to, but always doing everything possible to meet the customer’s needs.
[17:22] As anyone knows, robots can get in trouble. The good news here is that the robots can phone a friend. These “crew chiefs” might be in San Antonio or Mumbai, but as long as there’s a cloud connection, it doesn’t matter—the human can see what the robot sees, and quickly get the problem resolved or alert an onsite team member to assist. It’s awesome technology.
[22:15] A big piece of the RaaS offering is support. There are maintenance contracts to assure that a robot will never fail unexpectedly. There are routine software updates, ongoing training of the crew chiefs, collaboration and discussion on ways to improve the technology. You don’t get that with a traditional automation solution.
[25:06] The industry spends an enormous amount of time talking about robotics in the warehouse, but if you think about where the e-commerce industry is going, over-the-road transportation and the “last mile” getting a lot of well-deserved scrutiny. Companies will have to begin expanding their efforts, looking for ways to use these emerging technologies beyond the warehouse.