How is the intralogistics sector doing in 2016?
Pretty well! We can see that small business are investing as well as larger players, even if we’re not talking about the same order figures. On average, investments range from 100,000 euros to 2 million euros. In this respect the Macron Act (offering exceptional depreciation of 40% for the acquisition of a new piece of equipment up until mid-April) has had a positive effect. Companies have taken advantage and now expect to see a return of investment in one, two or three years maximum.
Who are the main business generators?
Essentially food, pharmaceuticals and airports. The latter of the three is displaying the most impressive growth: there are more and more planes and therefore more passengers and so an increase in the amount of luggage needing to be sorted. Parcel shipping is also doing well because it benefits from the state of e-commerce which is a booming market. For example we can see the increase in the numbers of e-Drives like the one launched by Amazon, the pioneer of one-hour delivery. Historically, France has always had a lot of warehouses. This therefore places it in a good position to support the upcoming growth.
What are the main trends in this sector?
One big trend is warehouse automation. Over the past three years we have seen things accelerating in this field. There are a number of reasons for this. The first of them is that we have to reach the same level of competitivity as other European countries such as Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium and of course Germany. The big challenge today is to improve productivity. We have to be agile, reactive, digital and omni-channel. The second reason is the increase on the supply side in the area of handling equipment. Today, manufacturers are targeting not just large companies but also small businesses. Prices have dropped and so logically the customer base has broadened, which has helped to develop product ranges. The last reason is that technology has become more flexible. For example, plant has become modular. You can buy what you need to fit in with your budget by assembling autonomous and intelligent sections. Four years ago this was a serious technical feat. Today it’s common practice!
Does automation have a negative impact on jobs?
Not really. Equipment requires maintenance, regular cleaning and constant monitoring. As a result, even if it’s true that automation doesn’t create many jobs, it doesn’t destroy many either. What it does bring about is a change in job types. The upshot is that people carry fewer heavy loads around and spend more time managing the software surrounding them. In other words, every time a new system is installed, you have to convert employees into maintenance technicians.
Can this improve working conditions?
Yes, but much still remains to be done. Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are a big cause for concern nationally and the problem is still very much out there. It is closely related to work rates, the repetition of movements and poor posture. And with automation, tasks are even more repetitive and work rates are getting faster to saturation point. So despite all of this, in order to push back the risk of occupational illness, we have to pay an increasing amount of attention to workstation conditions, develop systems which reduce the amplitude of the required movements and assist employees in what they do. To achieve this, there are a wealth of handling aids (such as automatic suction cup devices) and mechanical robotic tools. There are also cobots, which are those multi-jointed and intelligent arms which increase the physical capacities of operators and which are starting to crop up in industry everywhere. In addition, driverless vehicles, what we call Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) are also being used increasingly. It still remains that this equipment comes at considerable cost. At Cisma, we are campaigning for equipment that helps to prevent MSAs to be subsidised by the French health service.
What about what goes on outside the warehouse?
There is a lot of thought going on at the moment into the subject of urban logistics, but nothing has emerged as yet. To help deliverers to manoeuvre their packages safely and without endangering their health, you need to develop specific devices which can work both in a superstore and in a small high street shop. But we know that some equipment of this type already exists, like for example narrow pallet trucks or ones which can climb kerbs effortlessly. And of course there are drones which are just around the corner.