This is part of a series giving you an insider’s view of the products coming out of Pittsburgh to change the world.
Despite predictions of robots taking over factory operations, it is still common practice in 2023 for most product distribution centers to rely on human workers for picking and packing the products you buy.
“They’re walking around the warehouse. They’re picking items. They’re putting them away. They’re loading things,” says Ken Ramoutar, chief marketing officer for Wexford-based Lucas Systems. “The unseen problem is that these workers end up walking 5 to 10 miles a day.”
Ramoutar says that the physical toll of walking up to 50 miles weekly results in a workforce that cannot perform the job as they age.
With the surge in internet commerce and the desire for instant product delivery, companies are seeking solutions to reduce the amount of walking required. The challenge is intensified by the difficulty of finding and hiring enough workers, as well as the need to keep costs under control and maintain profits.
Although robotics has already made significant strides in automating repetitive tasks, there are still 2.5 million people employed in U.S. warehouses, a number that is expected to continue to rise, according to consultants from the Hecht Group.
More fulfillment centers are being constructed and are growing larger, with some covering an area as large as six football fields, and logistics demands are increasing. It is not uncommon for a distribution center to fulfill orders for both retail clients and direct-to-consumer orders from the same stock and utilize the same individuals to pick and fulfill orders.
This trend can be seen in Pittsburgh and elsewhere with the rise of Amazon distribution centers and other facilities that now dot the landscape.
In the North Hills, Lucas Systems has been using artificial intelligence for more than 25 years to optimize warehouse processes. Their AI-powered assistant, Jennifer (which predates Siri and Alexa), uses synthesized speech to guide factory workers through their tasks.
Now, Lucas Systems has developed Dynamic Work Optimization software that uses AI to optimize the path that workers take throughout the day, resulting in up to a 50% reduction in walking to complete the same work.
This allows clients, such as Home Depot, to fulfill orders more efficiently and prioritize shipments based on need rather than the traditional first come, first served model. With this software, companies can optimize their costs while still ensuring on-time delivery of priority packages.
To demonstrate how the system works, Lucas created a game that you can play online and compete against Jennifer to shorten the route you walk within a simulated distribution center. You get to pick your own product in the order that you want, and Jennifer will do the same. Then it will run the simulation to show you which path is optimal. Each time you play, the products you need to pick and pack will change.
After trying the game several times, I realized that while I improved with each attempt, I was never able to outperform Jennifer’s route. Additionally, it took me a minute each time to decide on my preferred route, which would be considered wasted time in a real-world scenario.
It will be years before robotics technologies can replace human workers in warehouses; so Jennifer’s new Dynamic Work Optimization tool will likely be the Pittsburgh-bred dynamic duo that many companies will use to fulfill your orders.
Know of a product or service being developed in Pittsburgh or by a Pittsburgh-based company that is cool, is creating growth, or will change the world? Let David know via email.