How technology is keeping employees safe and productive during the pandemic  for manufacturing, warehousing and fulfillment operations.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way Americans live – and the way we shop. U.S. ecommerce sales started skyrocketing in March 2020 and show no signs of slowing. In fact, online sales in the second quarter increased by 31.8% over first-quarter sales.[i]

As large ecommerce players prepare for what’s sure to be another busy holiday season this year, many have already announced plans to add hundreds of thousands of new employees.[ii] This additional labor will be necessary for unifying shopping channels and fulfilling customers’ orders no matter where they’re going, but that also presents a significant challenge: How do you maintain proper social distancing as employee numbers grow?

Fortunately, technology can help manufacturers and transportation and logistics companies limit close-contact situations as they hire new employees to support ecommerce demands.

Deploy a Distance Tracking Solution That Goes Beyond the “Beep”

Proximity monitoring solutions that either slip onto a worker’s wrist or are embedded into their rugged mobile devices are now widely available. These solutions help employees maintain a safe distance by issuing an alert when two or more employees get too close.

But solutions that simply “beep” to alert employees when they move too close together don’t go far enough. The most useful proximity monitoring solutions also record the time and location of proximity “events,” which occur when employees are spaced too closely together for a more extended, pre-specified length of time, such as five minutes.

Recording these events not only allows managers to identify and eliminate potential danger areas where worker congestion is high, but also allows for quick contact tracing if an employee tests positive for COVID-19.

“Hire” Cobots to Reduce Human Traffic on the Facility Floor

An increasing number of companies are “hiring” collaborative robots, or cobots, to reduce the burden of repetitive tasks on employees and minimize human-to-human contact. About 2.7 million robots now “work” in factories worldwide – an increase of 12% from last year.[iii]

Many manufacturers and ecommerce warehouse operators use cobots to transport orders and materials from the main building to the loading dock to help increase productivity. These material handling robots can also help prevent disease spread by limiting the number of employees on the manufacturing or warehouse floor.

Reengineer Workflow And Training to Minimize Human Contact

To keep workers successfully spaced, many companies are changing the way they do business. For instance, many warehouses were previously set up to accommodate an order-based picking system, where employees might grab a pallet jack and pick an entire order at once. This workflow design can be very efficient. But it also results in a lot of cross-mingling between workers.

Today, some warehouse operators are moving to a zone-based order system, where an employee is dedicated to one aisle and never leaves his or her zone. Again, cobots or autonomous mobile vehicles (AMVs) can help this process by transferring a half-completed order to the next zone for completion.

In a zone-based system, picking errors can be easily missed as packed materials are transported from one zone to another – and replacing missing or incorrect items can be very time-consuming. This model makes it even more critical to error-proof the process. Arming pickers with tools like barcode and RFID scanners as well as smart glasses, can help ensure the right items go in the right box or pallet before being transferred to the next zone.

Companies are also changing training and employee communications processes to reduce the potential for the spread of infections. Some companies are replacing in-person training with mobile device videos or the daily employee “huddle” with department-wide conference calls to reduce contact between employees.

Rethinking Business Operations

For years, companies have turned to lean manufacturing techniques to minimize waste in the manufacturing process while maximizing productivity. That’s why even before the start of the pandemic, 75% of warehouse operators had already equipped their employees with purpose-built devices and technology to increase efficiency, speed and accuracy, according to Zebra’s Warehousing Vision Study[iv].

In this post-COVID world, industry leaders are continuing to look for new solutions and ways to maximize efficiency while minimizing human contact to help maintain high productivity while also keeping employees safe.

About Zebra Technologies:
Zebra (NASDAQ: ZBRA) empowers the front line in retail/ecommerce, manufacturing, transportation and logistics, healthcare, public sector and other industries to achieve a performance edge. With more than 10,000 partners across 100 countries, Zebra delivers industry-tailored, end-to-end solutions to enable every asset and worker to be visible, connected and fully optimized. The company’s market-leading solutions elevate the shopping experience, track and manage inventory as well as improve supply chain efficiency and patient care. In 2020, Zebra made
Forbes Global 2000 list for the second consecutive year and was listed among Fast Company’s Best Companies for Innovators. For more information, visit www.zebra.com .

mark wheeler zebra technologies
Mark Wheeler

About the Author:
Mark Wheeler is the Director of Supply Chain Solutions at Zebra Technologies, where he is responsible for Zebra’s warehouse and supply chain solutions global strategy. He collaborates closely with customers’ supply chain operations teams, solution partners, and Zebra’s product development teams to align emerging technology solutions with customer needs. Mr. Wheeler has held numerous positions in supply chain execution throughout his 30-year career, including strategic consulting, automated warehouse design and build and complex systems integration. He holds a Bachelor of Science (BS) in mechanical engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University.

[i] https://www.census.gov/retail/mrts/www/data/pdf/ec_current.pdf
[ii] https://www.digitalcommerce360.com/2020/09/21/roundup-amazon-plans-to-hire-100000-new-employees-in-us-and-canada/
[iii] https://ifr.org/
[iv] 2024 Warehousing Vision Study, Zebra Technologies, 2019, page 10.