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As E-Commerce Booms, Automation Can Help Offset Warehouse Labor Shortages

Warehouses and distribution centers struggling to keep up with e-commerce demand in a weak labor market should look to automation for efficiency and savings.

Executive summary:

  • As e-commerce sales have risen considerably following the coronavirus pandemic, warehouse and distribution centers have been under an unprecedented crunch.
  • Weak labor markets have made it more difficult to staff in a way that meets this demand, pushing distributors to explore automation and robotics to increase productivity and efficiency.
  • Pregis Sharp® poly bagging machines allow one worker to do a job that would normally take three laborers to perform. AirSpeed® Chamberpak can be automated to create 25 inflatable cushions in less than a minute.
  • As a part of the customer relationship, Pregis consultants will analyze existing shipping practices in distribution centers and warehouses to integrate Pregis automation with as little disruption as possible.

After struggling to meet the demand for an e-commerce boom that led to a 45.3 percent increase year-over-year in online sales, there’s a record number of warehouse employees in the U.S. The problem? It’s still not enough.

The issue stretches beyond e-commerce, too. Industries worldwide are facing labor shortages, forcing businesses to hire workers at higher wages or use overtime to cover open shifts.


Reducing Labor Crunch Through Efficiency

As a solution, some of these warehouses and distributors have turned their focus to automation. Instead of hiring more and more workers, companies can instead train the workers they already have to become more efficient with the help of robotics technology.

One instance, Pregis’ Sharp bagging systems offer flexible packaging solutions and cohesive automation that can change the game for labor-strapped warehouses and distribution centers. Sharp machines can open, close/seal, and thermal print a label directly on the bag, so workers can safely take these tasks off their to-do lists.

This level of efficiency provides direct labor benefits, one bagging system and an operator can reallocate approximately 4-6 packers to other key areas of the warehouse.


Cushioning the Blow of a Weak Labor Market

Packing poly bags is just one area of automation that Pregis has a solution for. Pregis’ AirSpeed ChamberPak provides on-demand cushioning, serving as the most robust inflatable cushioning available from the AirSpeed system. It reduces labor costs in a warehouse setting through its Automated Express Pulse Inflater technology, which gauges the right pressure for the number of air cushions needed, opens the inflation valve, and fills the bags in seconds — all with limited input from the worker.

With the help of the Automated Pulse Inflater, ChamberPak cushions can be quickly loaded and inflated, creating 25 ready-to-use cushions in under a minute. This kind of robotics-enhanced packaging is part of a larger trend toward co-robotics, meaning labor that is shared between a human worker and an automated machine.

Co-robotics is about supplementing and supporting workers, not replacing them. For instance, Sharp bagging machines can be seamlessly integrated with inVia pick-and-place robots. This setup can reduce labor by up to 75 percent, allowing human workers more time and energy to work on complex tasks that require more critical thinking. It’s estimated that 95 percent of all secondary packaging lines will feature robotics and co-robotics in the next decade.


Predictive Packaging Analytics

When Pregis encounters a customer that needs help improving efficiency in their packaging operations, the company sends out its consultants to analyze their current practices. This is done for two reasons: to see where Pregis solutions can improve efficiency and productivity and to better understand how these solutions can be applied to the existing facility with as little disruption as possible.

Pregis can keep track of added efficiency through integrations with its IoT (Internet of Things), which analyzes the labor usage for each piece of equipment, as well as packs per minute at specific slots of time throughout the day, and total throughput.

One of the most important aspects of this analysis is made possible by Pregis’ Maxwell Intelligent Interface. With a touchscreen interface that can be customized to be as simple or complex as a given facility might need, Maxwell gives customers greater control over their productivity. Plus, Maxwell can be integrated into multiple machines throughout a given facility, providing full reporting on a warehouse’s entire automated packing operation.

Through Maxwell, warehouses can anticipate and reduce downtime through preventative maintenance. By engaging in proactive maintenance and scheduling self-cleaning between shifts, facilities can keep their machines up and running consistently. This is made even more necessary when considering the costly repair fees and lost productivity that comes with a mechanical failure.


Planning for the Automated Future

Warehouses and distribution centers are a hotbed of automation and robotics innovation. They are the perfect environments to test and apply new technologies that can provide even greater efficiency.  More innovations are on the horizon, and the facilities that are at the forefront of this movement will reap the biggest benefits.


Want to find out more about how Pregis’ automated solutions can improve your operations and workflows?

Contact a Pregis sales consultant