Surge Robots: Holiday Hiring Finds Automation

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Surge Robots: Holiday Hiring Finds Automation

The holiday hiring frenzy is under way and robots are joining the rush to seasonal jobs.

Retailers and logistics operators facing a tight labor market are ramping up automation at warehouses for the holidays, when online order volumes can surge tenfold as consumers load up digital shopping carts in the weeks around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

To cope, some businesses are ordering up extra fleets of collaborative robots, or “cobots,” that use cameras, lasers and sensors to navigate warehouse aisles and lead workers to the right shelves or to shuttle bins full of products between workstations. Many are available for lease.

Rick Faulk,

chief executive of Wilmington, Mass.-based Locus Robotics Corp., said demand for what he calls “surge robots” to bolster the armies of seasonal warehouse workers has grown this year, and the company is sending more than 500 of them to its logistics and e-commerce customers.

“We are seeing customers taking delivery earlier, and keeping the bots longer,” Mr. Faulk said, as retailers look to the machines for help in filling online orders and restocking the shelves at their brick-and-mortar stores.

France-based Geodis SA is boosting its robotic workforce by 75% to help workers at its U.S. warehouses fulfill fast-fashion orders during the holiday peak. This year the company, which plans to bring on between 6,000 and 7,000 human workers for the holiday period, is placing a total of 281 Locus units at five locations.

XPO Logistics Inc.,

which is hiring 20,000 human workers for the seasonal rush, is advancing its purchase of millions of dollars’ worth of robots the company expects to need next year so it can use them now to manage the spike in e-commerce orders.

“It’s a strategy for holiday peak that worked so well in 2018 that we’ve ramped it up this year and bought 30% more,” said company President

Troy Cooper.

There aren’t broad industry figures on the numbers of robots in logistics operations, and most warehouses still rely largely on people pulling carts

or driving forklifts.

But scarcity of labor and the push for faster delivery are accelerating automation at warehouses. By 2025 about 27.6% of warehouses globally will deploy commercial robots, compared to around 3% in 2018, market advisory firm ABI Research estimates.

The companies are looking for help in the labor-intensive business of storing, sorting and packing goods for shipment, especially around the holidays, when retailers and logistics providers add tens of thousands of extra workers.

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