The rise of the robots

Warehouse & industrial
Robots, cobots and AI are being used more often and more effectively in logistics operations, where they have been changing the model of how people work. We spoke to Magdalena Morze of the Łukasiewicz Poznań Institute of Technology, who is writing a doctorate thesis on human robot interaction (HRI), about what kind of working interactions take place between humans and robots in warehousing and production centres and whether the time has come for machines to replace people in this sector

Anna Zamyłka, Eurobuild CEE: Can you tell me where we are now at, in terms of robotisation in Poland? How does it compare to other countries?

Magdalena Morze, The Łukasiewicz Poznań Institute of Technology: We are definitely not among the leaders in this field, as can be seen from the numbers. Poland has one of the lowest robot densities in Europe and we also rank 16th in the world when it comes to the number of working robots. According to The ‘World Robotics 2021’ report by the International Robotics Federation, in 2020 the use of industrial robots was 0.5 pct higher globally than the previous year, with around 384,000 working robots. This was the third highest rise ever, with the two previous best years being 2017 and 2018. In Poland, the most robotised industries are rubber and plastic goods production as well as the automotive and pharmaceutical industries.

Why are other sectors not following this path?

Our production industries have to make a huge investment in technology. Robots are particularly expensive and so such investment has to be carefully considered. Not every organisation will find robots to be the optimal and most effective solution. Cost breakdowns will occasionally show that hiring people is cheaper.

The Polish warehousing sector benefits from low labour costs relative to much of Europe. Should we be worried that robots could spell the end to all those advantages and wipe out thousands of jobs?

Let’s start by saying that there’s no turning back from robotisation. It has already begun and nothing is going to stop it. According to the ‘Shoulder to Shoulder with Robots’ report published by McKinsey in 2017, 49 pct of the time put in at work in Poland is spent on activities that could be automated. This is equivalent to 7.4 mln jobs. That might sound daunting, but it’s not the full picture. Currently, robots take on the heaviest jobs, including those that are tiring, unhealthy and complicated. They will certainly take over some of our responsibilities, but this will not necessarily be to the detriment of people. Right now, in industries such as the logistics sector, robots are relieving people by replacing human muscle power. I cannot say whether future systems will be able to work without any human input. Of course, there are warehouses like that, where there’s no lighting and robots are operating 24/7, but they only carry out a small amount of the work. People are still required, either before they do their jobs or after that. According to my research, robots working in warehouses constitute one part of a system that at least at present always ends in a person. In general, these are AI supported systems that manage, for example, autonomous robotic forklifts. Such systems are changing our working models, but they’re not taking anything away from people – because people work together with robots. You also have to remember that automation does not necessarily result in fewer jobs. Workers can be moved to other positions or do their work in a different way.

Is there a perfect model for the work interaction of robots and people?

There is a six-level scale of human and machine interaction. The first involves large industrial robots that are caged off so people do not share their work space. At the other end of the scale, we have full interaction, where robots and people work hand-in-hand in relatively large spaces. In Poland, examples of work at level 6 are relatively rare. When I began working on my doctorate, I thought that we would be able to study a new emerging form of working team, but this is still just a futuristic vision.

Is it possible for a robot to become an equal partner in a team of people, in other words, with other work colleagues?

I feel that what will change is our concept of teamwork. What the continuous interaction with robots – and particularly those controlled by AI – will be like has not been properly studied and is still not understood. Clearly, as they develop, robots will become more autonomous and how they are used will change rapidly. At the beginning they were completely serviced and controlled by people, but now they are becoming more interactive and are starting to work with humans. I’m talking about cobots – robots that collaborate and work with people. I believe it’s very important to understand better how this new type of team works. It is now accepted that the best model for the working interaction between people and AI is that of a team, and this is how we have worked up until now. It’s believed that models of interaction between people will work just as well between people and robots, and in laboratory experiments this has been shown to be more or less true; but in reality, when it comes to industry, this kind of collaboration still only at a low level, so we can’t really talk of there being any teamwork in this sense. Maybe we’ve been too quick to assume that such teams had to be formed. I am personally unconvinced by this working model. Why should we turn a robot into a colleague? Let’s use them for what they do better than us, but don’t treat them as partners.

Do you think HRI has been marginalised in the study of robotics?

Absolutely! I’ve read countless documents on robotics and there have never been any such studies. In Poland, the training people receive is focused on servicing the system, while not enough attention is being paid to workers anxieties about change and losing their jobs. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about automation, robotics or production management through AI – it’s always the same. Companies will analyse the efficiency of implementing a system on many levels, looking at which figures go up and down, which systems work faster and which work cheaper, but when I ask how the workers react to such changes, I’m answered with silence. They don’t study this and just assume that people will be happy to work in an automated environment. When Dutch researcher Wim Lambrecht studied HRI in distribution centres, it turned out that the capabilities of robots had been overestimated and that people’s attitudes towards them had not been fully examined. There was not enough consideration for the employees. But now we have access to such knowledge, because the field of HRI has been thoroughly researched throughout the world – including in the US, for example.

How can workforces prepare themselves for such changes?

Much depends on the outlook of their management. To give you one concrete example: how pilots in the US after being trained in a flight support programme changed their approach to those systems depended on how much they trusted those who commanded them. It’s very important that the leaders of organisations believe in these systems.

System producers boast of their loyalty, reliability, availability and their resilience to stress and fatigue. Can we create the perfect warehouse worker by using robotics?

From a basic point of view, of course a robot is almost perfect. They never get tired or ill, and they don’t waste time gossiping. But looking into this question more deeply, we can see that there are other aspects, including supervision, responsibility and decision making. There are a wide range of external factors that shape how people think about robots, such as science fiction literature and films, and this sometimes means that our expectations of machines are too high.

So, to sum up what youve been saying, is there no threat to peoples jobs in warehousing just yet?

Humans haven’t been superseded just yet, but this doesn’t change the fact that we now have to start looking at our position. All of us, sooner or later and to a lesser or greater degree, will have to work with robots. And any failure to recognise the importance of HRI is a mistake that could cost us a great deal.

A woman on the edge of the (human) world

Magdalena Morze works at the Łukasiewicz Poznań Institute of Technology as part of the Digital Economy Research Group. She is studying for her doctorate at the Poznań University of Technology in the engineering management faculty and her thesis is on understanding Human Robot Interactions through research into such teams in industry.