The Use of Robotics in eCommerce Fulfillment – Is It Beneficial?

Image of robotics at work in ecommerce fulfillment center

As is the case with many other industries, ecommerce fulfillment is seeing a rise in the use of robotics. Some of the applications of robotics in ecommerce fulfillment assist human employees, allowing them to be more productive. While others eliminate the need for human employees to perform certain repetitive, mundane, or even sometimes dangerous tasks in the workplace. We’ll go over the various benefits of incorporating robotics in ecommerce fulfillment as well as some of the downsides. All of which must also be considered.

Keeping up with rising demand and labour shortage

Ecommerce sales have steadily increased ever since the concept was first introduced in the 1990s. The COVID-19 pandemic saw the volume of online shopping increase considerably around the world. While brick-and-mortar stores were closed, people were having many more products shipped to their homes. This increase in demand has resulted in an increase in the volume of goods being processed at ecommerce fulfillment centres. At the same time, it has become more difficult to find labour due to a variety of reasons. Including factors such as changing employee preferences, government policies, and economics. This has obviously put a strain on all aspects of ecommerce fulfillment. Robotic systems can help solve these problems. How? They offer businesses a way to keep up with the increase in demand. Doing so without having to constantly deal with the labour shortage.

Ensure human employees can do what they do best

The introduction of robotics in ecommerce fulfillment can help ensure that human employees can focus on the tasks best suited to them while allowing robots to handle the more repetitive and dangerous tasks. Robotic systems, unlike human employees, are particularly well-suited to tasks which are highly repetitive. These tasks are often not only disinteresting for human employees but often result in repeated-stress injuries. Both of which are concerning for the employees and the company. Instead, robots can perform these tasks which in turn frees employees up to perform higher-level tasks in the workplace. It also allows them to have a wider variety of movement throughout their shifts. This allows for more rapid optimization of these repetitive tasks as various configurations and parameters can be programmed and operationalized – oftentimes in a shorter period compared to retraining employees.

High upfront cost and less adaptable

As with many technological improvements to business operations, there is a significant upfront cost when deciding to implement robotic systems in an ecommerce fulfillment setting. It is nearly always cheaper to hire human employees and provide them with instructions for performing a task. Robotic systems use very expensive components and must have both their hardware and software set up in specific ways, often something which can only be done by trained technicians. All of this results in the higher upfront cost when compared to human employees.

Furthermore, while robotic systems are extremely good at performing a specific repeated task, they are almost entirely incapable of performing different tasks. Even small changes require reprogramming and potentially a reconfiguration of components. Larger changes will often require entirely new components and installations, needing significant investments in both time and money.

Human employees on the other hand can simply be asked to make slight changes to a procedure and even be asked to perform entirely different tasks with relatively little time and money. Generally speaking, both of these disadvantages of robotic systems are less relevant for larger fulfillment operations. Larger companies are capable of spending the required capital upfront to install these systems as well as make changes as needed. Reconfiguring a large robotic system takes only a little bit more effort than for a small system. Comparitively, retraining a large number of people takes much more effort than for a small number.

Should robotics be used for ecommerce fulfillment?

Ecommerce fulfillment is one of the most natural applications for industrial robotics and can provide many benefits. The repeatability of ecommerce fulfillment lends itself well to these systems. Since the goods have already been manufactured at this stage, they simply need to be packed into boxes, organized, and sent where needed. Something robotic systems are well suited for. The use of robotic systems in ecommerce fulfillment will ensure that businesses can keep up and help employees avoid repetitive and dangerous tasks, instead focusing on what they do best.