"Collaborative thinking" in the warehouse means humans and robots work in tandem.

The retail and e-commerce robots are here, but they’re not stealing jobs — yet. Today’s supply chain and fulfillment center workforce includes robotics and increasingly involves “collaborative thinking” — better depicted as “people and robots working in tandem” with the goal of streamlining efficiency.

The rise in e-commerce doled out reinvention of brick-and-mortar retail, but resounding changes have also occurred deeper within the supply chain. “Reliability and quality of your workforce has changed significantly in the past 10 to 15 years,” said Adam Kline, senior director of product management at Manhattan Associates, in an interview with WWD.

Manhattan Associates, recognized in WWD’s 2019 “What to Watch: Retail’s FashTech Providers” advocates for unity “across the enterprise, converging front-end sales with back-end supply chain execution” by way of cloud and on-premise solutions, servicing clients such as New Balance and Adidas.

A now “archaic” utopia of warehouse futurism began with “goods to person” order fulfillment by Amazon, which initially acquired Kiva robotics in 2012, renamed the robots with its brand identity and internalized the logistics for efficiency gains, as previously reported in WWD.

With the aid of technology, warehouse ebbs and flows are further automated, with more and more robots being safely integrated with human coworkers. Robots are also getting “smarter,” but not in the manner to which they usurp the human laborer or even cause harm. According to Kline, the latter is mitigated by retro-fitting older bots with vests or engineering newer bots with radars and cameras.

Listen to the full interview here.

Warehouse robotics aside, Kline depicts “order streaming” as a trend in automation, stemming from batch efficiency, whereby e-commerce warehouses and distribution centers can address complex pick sequencing issues and ensure the most important orders get the most resources. Think VIP clients or quick delivery turnaround.

Order streaming matches up resource capacity alongside seasonal and daily volume shifts, where heavier e-commerce activity occurs. For many retailers, Black Friday indicates peak season, but to others — there’s no time like the present. Prom season, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day beg for bigger profitability with occasion product categories such as formalwear driving the former.

Kline also spoke of the trend for greater unity of information at distribution centers. Manhattan Associate’s integration of a platform-agnostic warehouse execution system acts as a “buffer” between traditional warehouse management systems and warehouse control systems. The WES unifies communication and data, acting as an essentially “holistic software.”

As the warehouse gains refreshed automated technology, tasks crucial to order fulfillment become more streamlined and efficient, and the human worker is supplemented — not necessarily replaced.