Logistics: the Robots are Coming

Robots are increasingly replacing unskilled workers in cargo terminals at airports and elsewhere in the logistics field. In their new study, the renowned consulting firm Roland Berger estimates 1.5 million logistics jobs within the EU will vanish and be taken over by robots by 2025. A grim outlook particularly for those that lack sufficient skills. Only qualification programs can protect them from becoming unemployed.

Robots in logistics should be considered as partners, not enemies, recommends consultant Roland Berger  -  courtesy RB
Robots in logistics should be considered as partners, not enemies, recommends consultant Roland Berger - courtesy RB

Currently, a single industry robot costing between 100,000 to 110,000 euros on average generates a positive return on investment within three years. However, thanks to productivity gains of 20 to 30 percent each year through robotization in mature markets the amortization of working machines will accelerate fast, coming down from three to two years by 2018. Seen from a microeconomic standpoint, replacing humans by machines pays off and spurs the use of robots even further. “Increased productivity, the lengthening in the lifespan of solutions and the drop in equipment prices all favour the move towards robotization, while labour costs continue to rise,” reads the Berger analysis, titled: “Of Robots and Men – in logistics: Towards a confident vision of logistics in 2025.”

Qualification programs are key to prevent redundancies
In their analysis, the Roland Berger experts take France as an example where at least 500,000 unskilled jobs are directly linked to logistics, like fork-lift operators, packers etc. Across the leading 15 countries in the Eurozone that figure rises to nearly 3.6 million workers. Their occupational future is at stake if they do not engage in qualification programs, encouraged and supported by their employers. In case they don’t, robots will replace them. 

Unstoppable technical revolution
In logistics, the operational scope of robots already includes the moving of pallets, stacking/unstacking activities, the palletizing of goods and the loading of shipments. This is just the beginning, with every new robot generation becoming capable of performing tasks that are more demanding. In their forecast, the Roland Berger experts predict that the mass arrival of robots in logistics is no longer a controversial point. They stress, that the much more important question is how soon this kind of automation will take place and what employers and employees should do to better prepare for this unstoppable technical evolution. This is not up for discussions, state the Roland Berger people in their study. Having said this, they strongly encourage logisticians to give up traditional thinking and outdated working processes and revamp their business models based on the new reality.   

Politicians together with industry bosses must take action fast
Regulatory authorities must become increasingly aware of the industrial changes and should conceive programs to manage the transition in order to prevent mass losses of jobs, recommends the study. In a 2014 conducted national consultation on logistics in France, two-thirds of the attendees said that the complexity of the country’s regulations is the main obstacle to develop a competitive logistics sector.

Not threat, but chance
The Roland Berger authors state: Attempts to overprotect employees from robotization processes in the logistics sector hardly succeed. Instead, they put the jobs in danger. The consultancy’s experts conclude: “Supporting and financing research and training into new robotics professions is essential and should be accelerated now. Otherwise, the robots will be Japanese, Korean or Chinese, they will operate all across Europe and lost jobs will be offset elsewhere.”
Their final advice: The management and staff of logistics companies shouldn’t perceive robotic automation as a threat but as tool to enhance the product range, thus upping the international competitiveness of their firm and safeguard jobs this way.

Heiner Siegmund

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