Saturday, July 29, 2023

"Inside Walmart’s Warehouse of the Future" (WMT)

From the Wall Street Journal, July 28:

Robots handle many functions at Florida facility, from unloading trucks and scanning boxes to building and shrink-wrapping pallets for delivery

BROOKSVILLE, Fla.—Inside a sprawling Walmart warehouse here, hundreds of jobs slinging boxes are changing into roles managing robotic arms, conveyor belts and screens.

The central Florida warehouse, surrounded by cow pastures and housing developments, has been one of this county’s largest private employers since it opened in 1991, say local officials. By the end of the year, it will be the first U.S. Walmart warehouse of its kind to use automation to handle most products.

“Welcome to the future,” said José Molina, who has worked in the Brooksville warehouse for 25 years. Three months ago he became an autonomous forklift operator in the facility after years unloading semi trucks the manual way with a pallet jack.

“Now I’m watching the robots unload the truck. I’m behind the robot taking care of the issues,” said Molina, 51. “It’s a big change.” The work is less manual, there is more software knowledge involved, and he has more energy at the end of a shift, he said. Workers who make the leap to automated jobs generally don’t earn higher pay. Walmart’s supply-chain workers earn an average of $25.50 an hour.

Walmart plans to automate or partially automate many of its hundred-plus U.S. warehouses in the coming years. The shift means Walmart can use fewer people to process more goods and make stocking shelves at stores more efficient. To keep their jobs, many of the company’s tens of thousands of warehouse workers need to retrain for new roles. Some will leave. Warehouses will also need to hire people with new skills, such as technicians.

Large companies such as Walmart and Amazon that rely on massive warehousing networks have worked for years to automate more of their supply chains to increase the volume of packages they can process and reduce labor costs. Because of Walmart’s scale, its plan to make automation standard in more of its supply chain is likely to affect how smaller competitors invest in their own facilities and what a U.S. warehouse job becomes.

“What this technology does for us is increases capacity, increases the accuracy of our loads, increases the speed of the supply chain and lowers cost,” said David Guggina, executive vice president of supply chain for Walmart. It is “also completely reshaping the way that our associates work within the distribution center.”

At the Brooksville warehouse, some workers who made the leap to new automated roles say they like doing less manual labor than in their previous jobs and their typical shift includes more mental stimulation. Workers and supply-chain experts say some prefer the simplicity of the traditional warehouse job.

In Brooksville, as sections of robotic arms and screens are gradually installed across the more than 1–million–square-foot facility, some of its roughly 900 workers say they are skeptical about transitioning to new roles that require different skills.

Jose Vargas, 49, who has worked at the Brooksville warehouse for 20 years and transitioned to an automated role about two years ago, said some of his co-workers on the yet-to-be automated side of the building are hesitant to make the leap....