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How are labour shortages in logistics driving the development of robotics?

AI-powered robots are becoming increasingly important in the logistics industry.

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Global sales of service robots increased by 48% last year, amounting to 158 thousand units, reports the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). This growth was driven by the rapid expansion of e-commerce, significant increases in labour costs, and a shortage of skilled labour in some regions of the world, including Europe.

“The warehouse robotics industry is growing rapidly. A lack of skilled workers and recruitment challenges for service positions are driving demand. The IFR counted almost 1,000 service robot providers worldwide offering automated services,” says Marina Bill, president of the IFR.

In 2022, over half a million new robots were installed, representing an increase of 5% compared to the previous year. Asia has the largest share in this consumption, accounting for 73% of all installations globally.

Europe and America account for 15% and 10% of the robot installation market, respectively. China alone is responsible for over 50% of global demand for robots, demonstrating the dynamic development of automation in the country. In Europe, 71,000 new robots were installed in 2022, with 36% of these installations occurring in Germany.

Progress in Logistics Robotisation

The largest share of the global robotics market falls on devices used in the transport and logistics sector. More than half of these devices are intended for transporting goods. In 2022, their global sales increased by 44%, to approximately 86,000 units.

The shortage of personnel in logistics causes a sharp increase in demand, prompting logistics companies to increase investments in robotics and automation. Amazon, for example, has invested substantial resources in logistics automation, allocating approximately USD 1 billion for this purpose since 2022. This year, the giant invested in further robotic solutions.

This is hardly surprising. According to the analytical company Precedence Research, the value of the global logistics robotics market was USD 8.78 billion last year. Analysts predict that with an average annual growth of 16.24%, it will amount to USD 39.55 billion in 2033.

“Robot manufacturers are increasingly integrating hardware and software to meet the needs of the warehousing and logistics sector. Robots equipped with artificial intelligence open up new opportunities for this sector,” explains Marina Bill.

The use of artificial intelligence in robotics is primarily aimed at accustoming robots to variable and unpredictable situations. Thanks to artificial intelligence based on experiential learning rather than regular programming, robots can quickly learn to work independently. They use optical systems to autonomously transport goods within factories and are able to shorten task handling time from 90 minutes to a few seconds.

“The combined use of a wide range of robotics and automation plays a key role in solving the shortage of workers and enables the future development of this key industry,” emphasises the president of IFR.

Robots will outnumber warehousing staff, but the process shall take time

The international technology company Körber is convinced of the effectiveness of counteracting the lack of qualified employees using robotic solutions. In this area, machines already support people. According to the company, the possibilities of using robots are wide, ranging from internal logistics to production.

“In internal logistics, both in production and distribution, robots perform a variety of transport, storage, and handling tasks. Transport of containers and pallets between different sectors and order picking based on autonomous robots are typical examples,” says Michael Heidu, product and solutions manager at Körber Supply Chain.

Industry organisations such as the Robotics Industry Association (RIA) and the International Federation of Robotics report that robots in warehouses offer numerous benefits that significantly improve the efficiency of warehouse operations.

In times of employee shortages, this is often the only option for many entrepreneurs to ensure the continuity of operations. Here are some examples where machines can effectively address staff shortages:

  • Robots can take over repetitive tasks such as sorting, packing, and moving goods.
  • They operate continuously, increasing the overall efficiency of warehouse operations.
  • Robots can handle heavier workloads.
  • They can work in dangerous or hard-to-reach places.
  • Warehouse robots are becoming more flexible and can be quickly reprogrammed for various tasks depending on the operational needs of the warehouse.
  • They can work on higher shelves, which usually require qualified employees.

Ph.D. Jacek Męcina, professor at the University of Warsaw and advisor to the management board of the Lewiatan Confederation, said in an interview with the Newseria Innowacje agency that investing in robotisation and automation, as well as the use of artificial intelligence in technological processes combined with robots, will be a breakthrough in the labour market, although it won’t happen soon.

Research conducted among companies shows that changes in employment will occur not even in the first years of these investments, but only after some time. These effects, including negative ones, will be visible on the labour market probably within one decade, so we have time to prepare,” said Dr. Hab. Jacek Męcina.

Michael Heidu holds a similar opinion, stating that some jobs are done better by humans than by machines. In his opinion, humans are particularly better at independently recognising undefined environments and objects, where robots often have their limitations. As an example, the expert cites picking work in warehouses. Despite rapidly developing sensor technology, robots still have certain limitations in recognising individual parts.

Demographics pushing change

Regardless, it should be remembered that Europe is in the process of demographic ageing of society, which means that labour resources are decreasing every year. Ph.D. Jacek Męcina is convinced that this gap will have to be partially filled by investing in modern technologies, robotisation and automation.

75% of companies operating in the warehouse management sector in developed markets experience difficulties with recruiting employees – results from international research commissioned by Gi Group Holding. There is a shortage of 1.1 million workers in Europe. However, the current challenge is not only the shortage of workers, but also the quality of the workforce. Research shows that many employees currently employed in warehousing do not have the skills and appropriate experience.

According to Gartner forecasts, by 2028 the number of intelligent robots in the manufacturing, retail and logistics sectors will exceed the number of actual workers due to labour shortages. This means that the challenges facing the logistics industry in the near future will be more than just whether to use automation to fill employment gaps. It will be much more difficult to adapt the work of humans and robots in the era of such a rapidly developing robotics market.

IFR’s 5 Robotics Trends for 2024

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in Robotics

Generative artificial intelligence has changed the way robots are programmed. Instead of traditional coding, it uses natural language, reducing the need for specialised programming skills. Additionally, predictive AI analyses performance to predict equipment failures, which can significantly reduce costs associated with machine downtime.

Predictive tools also analyse robot performance data to identify the future state of devices. This can save manufacturers substantial costs, as unplanned downtime can be very expensive (for example, in the U.S. auto parts industry, each hour of unplanned downtime is estimated to cost $1.3 million).

New Applications of Cobots

Cobots, equipped with advanced sensors, vision technologies, and intelligent grippers, are increasingly being used to collaborate with humans, especially in tasks such as welding.

They complement traditional industrial robots and help address the shortage of skilled labour.

Mobile Manipulators

These robots combine the mobility of work platforms with the dexterity of manipulator arms, automating tasks in sectors such as automotive and logistics. Equipped with sensors and cameras, they perform inspections and maintenance, thus supporting employees.

Digital Twins

Digital twins are virtual models that correspond to real objects, systems, or processes. They enable the simulation of operations and monitoring of the state of physical counterparts in real time. This allows for better planning, optimisation of operations, and the prediction of potential failures before they occur.

Humanoid Robots

The development of humanoid robots, designed to perform a wide range of tasks in various environments, is making significant progress. Their human-like design, with two arms and legs, allows for flexible use in work environments originally created for humans. This enables easy integration with existing processes and warehouse infrastructure.

Article produced in collaboration with trans.iNFO’s Natalia Jakubowska