Iain Friar from Yale Europe Materials Handling explains why your people are at the heart of successful strategies for introducing the latest materials handling solutions

Now that new digital and automation technologies are becoming more widespread in materials handling, I want to dispel a common misconception about them – that these technologies will replace people so that there will be fewer jobs in materials handling.

In fact, the opposite is true. The human touch is going to become even more important in the relationship between people and the machines that they operate. What will change is the nature of the jobs and the way people interact with machines.

To illustrate my point, consider a fleet of 40 trucks. With automation, you can now use one operator to run that fleet instead of 40. Your operation is now more efficient and is more likely to grow. In that case, the business will need more people – but their roles will be different from before. You can expect to see requirements for space planning and utilisation grow, as well as increased focus on operational efficiency, which in turn will need support from business analysts, for example.

The shifting balance of man and machine

So where and how the human interface takes place will change. However, the crucial point is that there is always a human interface and therefore the human touch is as important as it ever was. That’s why retention of your employees, their development, keeping them motivated and looking after their well-being is so important.

To improve staff and skill retention, always consider the nature and quality of this human-machine interface. Machines can be identical to one another but every human is different, so the way that any given individual interfaces with the machine is absolutely crucial to productivity. And that’s true of both physical and digital interfaces. Think about today’s forklift operator: if they can’t reach levers properly to lift loads or easily manipulate data on a dashboard, then they are going to be a lot slower and ineffective – and unhappy.

The idea here is a simple one: operators stay fresh and productive if they’re working in a comfortable, well-designed environment that can be easily adjusted to suit preferences. Of course, the knock-on benefit is increased productivity, and ultimately, profitability.

So, to keep your people engaged and motivated, you need to make sure they have the right tools for the job. Provide a workspace that fits around your operators rather than expecting them to fit the machine.

Valuing the human touch

Giving your people the opportunity for development is equally important. You may think that the materials handling industry suffers from very high staff turnover and that with job-hopping millennials entering the workforce in greater numbers, the skills shortage is likely to worsen. However if your business applies best practice in employee development, then you can look forward to higher retention rates and lower recruitment costs.

I think millennials’ aversion to committing to an employer in order to work their way up through the ranks is symptomatic of poor employment and development practices rather than any particular characteristic that can be attributed to that generation.

If you don’t have development opportunities or a good working environment in place for your employees, regardless of whether they are a millennials or not, they can easily find employment elsewhere. Materials handling offers plenty of jobs and competition for skills is fierce.

In our latest eGuide, we outline how to align your talent management strategies with the new realities of a rapidly changing workforce and a digital, interconnected, automated supply chain. We’ll look at a real life example and take you through the issues you need to address in order to develop the workforce you will need to successfully compete in this challenging market.

Read on to find out more about the importance of skills retention and development in materials handling by downloading our free eGuide Driving continuous improvement in materials handling in the automotive industry: The human touch