The UK’s role in AI will have a major impact on industry, according to Luke Stringer

The warehousing industry has enjoyed something of a boom in recent months. With the shadow of Brexit hanging over the United Kingdom, many retailers are stockpiling goods in anticipation of product scarcity, higher import taxes and a general uplift in price. Although the true cost of Brexit for the UK remains to be seen, this has provided a welcome ripple effect for the warehouse industry, where many order books have received a significant boost.

Another trend driving warehousing innovation is the rise of online shopping, which has led to a two-fold increase in the demand for warehouse space in just a decade, according to new figures from research company CBR.

The figures show that more than 235 million square feet of warehouse space came into the sector – either via lease or purchase – between 2007 and March of 2018. When compared to the previous decade’s performance of 130 million square feet, a clear, almost desperate, need for warehousing space is apparent.

Add to this the seasonal element on the run-up to the festive period and the improvement in manufacturing output in the quarter to November, manufacturers in the food and beverage sector are leading the way for manufacturing growth as their customers prepare for Christmas.

With this extra demand that is both seasonal and in the case of online shopping, set to continue at a steady pace, the industry is continually seeking new solutions to handle peaks in demand and provide greater productivity and cost efficiencies.

The appetite for AI in a plethora of industries rages on, with the demand for more efficient solutions driving the development of new technology to streamline processes and reduce costs.

The applications of AI – although widespread – are still in their infancy and the near future could see AI-fed processes becoming the norm across swathes of industry, from gaining insight into efficiencies to product design to the manufacturing process itself.

Materials handling firm, Midland Pallet Trucks is keen to point out that British industry stands at a critical crossroads when it comes to the uptake of AI and its management against the existing, human workforce. One of the main goals of AI – the firm says – is to provide workspaces with machines that have autonomy and pull from a vast bank of knowledge on how best to proceed, but the impact on jobs and human-occupied roles will require careful and considerate planning.

Back in 2017, we had already seen the launch and implementation of Kindred AI, a new range of warehouse robotics systems powered by artificial intelligence that is already in use with major retailers. In another AI innovation, the company developed Kindred Sort for use in retail distribution and e-commerce fulfilment centres to quickly and accurately sort an endless variety of products and packages into customer orders ready for dispatch.

What makes Kindred Sort so interesting is that it works side by side with warehouse staff and doesn’t aim to replace the human role in the process and only seeks to complement the existing workforce by providing greater efficiency.

Phil Chesworth, Managing Director of Midland Pallet Trucks, said: “It’s clear that AI represents an enormously valuable tool for any sector of the manufacturing industry – and well beyond – but our main concern right now is how uptake is regulated and if there’s any kind of long-term vision out there in terms of minimising worker impact.”

One of the primary considerations that require a careful and sensitive approach when it comes to AI in the warehousing industry is the human rights of current workers who may be concerned that these new technologies are going to render their skills obsolete and seriously hinder their employability in the future.

However, Phil believes that every warehouse and factory will still need humans on-site to oversee operations, but we need to be sure that Industry 4.0 doesn’t mean the exclusion of real workers in favour of cost-saving and job-eliminating AI. We know the UK is a hotbed of AI innovation, and it’s crucial that the impacts are assessed just as thoroughly as the benefits.

How AI is going to be regulated for the UK warehousing sector to protect the interests of workers remains to be seen, but one thing’s for certain – AI is set to be an integral part of the warehouse of the future, and it’s up to the UK to lead by example to oversee these changes to best serve businesses, retailers and the thousands of skilled workers currently keeping the industry at the forefront of the warehousing sector.

Luke Stringer is Internal Sales and Marketing Executive at Midland Pallet Truck, a pallet truck specialist, with a diverse range of models and specifications held in stock for immediate shipping. The company provides excellent customer service and top-quality pallet trucks at the best possible prices. All trucks are produced under ISO9002 certification and carry the CE, GS & TUV quality ratings and a full guarantee.