March of the Robots: Warehouse Trends in Robotics

Helen Henshaw - CAO
6th June 2023

It was predicted that by 2025 over 4 million commercial robots would be installed in over 50,000 warehouses, which at the time seemed futuristic but now could be within the realms of possibility.

There remains a significant barrier to the adoption of robotics in terms of the cost of installing a dedicated infrastructure.  Current efforts are focused on using existing structural features wherever possible to keep costs down. Where once workers might have felt uncomfortable moving to the use of modern technologies, the latest generation of workers expect to use modern technology like they do at home, particularly handheld devices that are intuitive to use and ultimately save time and effort in accomplishing tasks.


Labour Shortages

Whilst half a million robots were installed around the world in 2021, an all-time high, only about 2,000 of those were in the UK. Clearly, we have some catching up to do.

There are several drivers for the adoption of automation, but a major one is staff shortages and that is something the UK knows all about at the moment.

Labour shortages have been blighting the transport and logistics industry for a long time. The scale of the problem was highlighted in a 2023 study from the Centre for European Reform, which found that the logistics sector had lost 128,000 EU-origin workers over the past couple of years, that is about eight per cent of the total workforce and makes it by far the worst hit sector of the economy. Efforts to replace EU workers with workers from elsewhere has not happened and it will take time for the governments new immigration policy to bed in. Matters have also been complicated and exacerbated by the pandemic.

In the UK context, belonging to the EU and the associated freedom of movement (FoM) of workers was a shock to the labour supply, in that it increased the pool of labour available to employers. This may have historically dampened incentives to adopt machinery. The end of FoM is therefore a shock in the opposite direction, which could encourage firms to turn to automation to substitute for less skilled labour – though this is by no means guaranteed. In a 2011 study, it was found that firms in areas with high immigration flows adopted significantly less machinery per unit of output. The overall results of the study were consistent with automation machinery being both a relative substitute for less skilled labour and a complement to higher skilled labour. (Immigration, skill mix and capital skill complementarity (Lewis, 2011)).


Man vs Machine

Currently, employers are looking at some combination of higher wages (and prices) together with more flexible work practices to try to increase their labour force. If employers can do neither of these things, they may ultimately produce less, especially in work that is hard to automate. It’s no surprise then that employers are looking to reduce the labour-intensity of work.

Collaborative robots or ‘cobots’ (a robot intended for direct human-robot interaction within a shared space) are now being used globally to assist human workers along with autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and mobile cobots (a combination of the two) are also seen working alongside workers to alleviate the pressures of demanding physical labour in warehouses. As well as creating a better place to work, these robots also increase productivity and reduce error rates. Their use can also create the opportunity to train and upskill warehouse workers who can then achieve more fulfilling and better paid employment.

In a world of escalating operating costs, robots don’t need lighting, sleep or rest breaks. They can also be used to address some safety and hygiene issues, for example, in a fruit and vegetable environment there is the opportunity to optimize gases in rooms where fruit is being processed, picked and packed. So while robots are perceived as expensive, their popularity is growing and so prices are reducing.



Across the organisations interviewed as part of the government’s Migration Advisory Committee annual report (published January 2023), several expected to see an increase in automation being built into their operations in coming years. Employers were actively identifying areas for automation or even trialling new systems. There are still significant barriers to this, including the initial investment required, and the current precision and efficiency of the technology compared to a worker. However, automation is often seen as a gradual rather than binary process.

Some of the most recent advances has been in the development of robotic arms, which allow for picking as well as the transportation of goods from warehouse shelves. Whilst drones have been used for some time in warehouses for maintenance purposes in hard to access places, they are increasingly being used to transport goods, track and identify the location of products and take audits of packages in warehouses. Robots can also assist in stock-takes within the warehouse and help to automate ordering processes to prevent out of stocks.

Whilst employers believe it may reduce the need for labour over time, few see automation as a feasible way to address staff shortages in the short-term. Not everyone will be able to make the capital investments required to automate tasks. However, necessity is the mother of invention, and it looks like the warehouse robot is marching towards us.