Can technology make up for the labour shortage in distribution?

Posted in B2B sales & distribution.

For a while now, the distribution industry has been suffering from a shortage of workers. Distribution companies have been battling to maintain overall work performance in the face of declining labour. The introduction of the pandemic and the adoption of the “new way of life” has caused people to rethink where and how they want to work. This resulted in the labour shortage being exacerbated.

To combat this, distribution companies have attempted to adopt a variety of protocols to incentivise employees to stay. Furthermore, with the distribution industry looking less and less appealing to workers, distribution companies have had to find alternative ways to attract more workers. Some have even chosen to relax the entry requirements to attract more workers.

One aspect that may play a role in saving the distribution industry from this labour shortage is technology. Technology has historically been used to alleviate work burden on individual workers and to reduce the need for a larger workforce. It then seems like innovative technological approaches stand a chance in solving this ongoing issue.

Reduced work burden could alleviate negative expectations of workloads

Distribution companies have attempted to increase wages and salaries in response to the labour shortage hoping to attract more workers. This can work in some regard, but one major issue distribution workers have is the extent of their workload. For many, work hours and burden are not worth any amount of money – at least for those who are properly qualified for said work.

Automated workflows can augment worker performance meaning that workers can achieve the same level of productivity with less work. When distribution workers are often touted as being overworked, using technology to alleviate their work burden may paint the distribution work environment as more breathable and less demanding; ultimately this makes the job less unappealing.

Though, the aim here is not to completely replace distribution workers with machines but rather to use this technology to help existing workers.

Automation reduces the need for larger workforces

Many distribution workers spend at least a quarter of their time performing manual and repetitive tasks. Some companies employ workers where those manual and repetitive tasks are the majority of their job tasks. Mobile automation solutions remove the need for menial labour workers and frees up many workers to do more meaningful work. Workers are more prone to injury when working long hours with large loads. These are things that machines can excel at.

Boston Dynamics has created a robot called “Stretch” which is able to move 800 boxes per hour in the warehouse. It can potentially be used to load and unload trucks, strip cases off of pallets, and transfer cartons to conveyors. So, there is certainly precedence for mobile automations in the distribution warehouse. With the rise of self-driving vehicle technology, the need for dedicated drivers may fall to the wayside.

Switching to a robotic “workforce” can be costly, however. Robots as a service (RaaS) is one such solution. This may seem like human workers are just being replaced with robotic workers. After all, service fees are almost identical to salaries and wages. Think about it in this way, robots have the ability to be fine-tuned to exact specifications without a considerable delay in decision-making. In this way, it is an upgrade. RaaS is expected to continue to grow and in the future, mobile robots will become more accessible.

Tech can enhance the labour force you already have

One way to bypass the need for more labourers is to enhance the existing workforce to be able to take up the work extra workers could have. The answer is not to increase their workload, but allow technology to streamline time-consuming aspects of their jobs to free them up for more meaningful productivity.

How much time do workers spend on administrative tasks such as data collection, reporting, and communication? What if your workers could spend that time on more revenue-producing activities? Automated software that can relieve that time from workers could potentially lead to more fruitful work without the need to hire more workers.
The analysis power of technology can help to identify key areas and opportunities. Data is difficult to sift through at times, but technology can highlight the most important aspects of that data. This makes overseeing a workforce easier. Managing a labour shortage is as much about eliminating that shortage as it is about making the best of that shortage. A smaller but well-managed workforce can accomplish as much, if not more, than a larger but poorly-managed workforce.

Another problem with the labour shortage is that veterans in the industry are retiring and taking those skills and knowledge with them. With distribution companies being more lenient on job and expertise entry requirements, the workforce is becoming more and more unskilled. Technology can combat this loss and the steep-learning curve naïve workers need to climb.