The unsung heroes of Black Friday — the warehousing and logistical workforce — can find a helping hand from cobots, according to Universal Robots.

As the Black Friday frenzy rolls around again this year, while shoppers revel in their purchases, warehouse workers in the region are toiling tirelessly to meet the surge in orders — with the intensified workload unfortunately leading to increased inaccuracies in order picking, posing a significant operational challenge. 

However, according to Universal Robots, only 10% of Southeast Asian consumers would accept a delay delivery period of over one week, which resulted in workers overworking to meet standards — and subsequently 1,326 logistical workplace injuries just in Singapore alone last year. 

Despite its roots in American culture, Black Friday has transcended borders to become an annual global shopping event held on the Friday after Thanksgiving — but going global has not been its only change. Previously initiated by physical stores offering special sales, Black Friday now has a strong presence online due to the rapid development of e-commerce.

In fact, Asian e-commerce giants such as Shopee and Lazada have also jumped on the Black Friday bandwagon, providing special sale prices for customers who use the platforms. When combining a massive shopping festival with the e-commerce’s rapidly growing popularity, this makes for peak e-commerce season — and a whole lot of orders to fulfil.

According to reports, the e-commerce market in Asia is set to amount to 6.2 billion users come 2028. With orders set to total in the billions, retailers and their logistical workers are put under a microscope. Tasked with the bane of fulfilling a huge spike in orders, can they handle it?

Physical and financial strain of Black Friday logistics

According to Universal Robots, during peak sale periods like Black Friday, warehouse workers in Asia face numerous challenges that can have detrimental effects on both their well-being and the retailers they work for.

The surge in orders often necessitates extended work hours, leading to physical and mental strain and an increased risk of injuries. This includes slips, falls, and repetitive strain injuries from constantly lifting heavy payloads for prolonged periods of time. 

In Singapore, the logistical sector saw 1,326 workplace injuries in 2022, with 48 of them being classified as major injuries. Injured workers would need to be financially covered by employers because of their injuries, which is a double-edged sword as they also would be depending on a resulting smaller number of workers to cover the demands of Black Friday.

The pressure to fulfil orders quickly can contribute to higher error rates in the picking process, resulting in mistakes in picking and packing items. Consequently, slower delivery times and unhappy customers receiving wrong orders can damage the company’s reputation. 

According to Rakuten Insights, only 10% of Southeast Asian consumers would accept a delay delivery period of over one week, highlighting increased customer expectations about order fulfilment within the region.

These challenges may result in overwhelmed staff, delayed shipments, and customer dissatisfaction, ultimately hurting the bottom lines of retailers. Ultimately, these points highlight the need for improved working conditions and labour practices during Black Friday in Asia.

The role of automation in managing Black Friday logistical challenges

Universal Robots believes the helping hand of automation has emerged as the go-to solution in the logistics industry, revolutionizing how businesses handle their operations. 

Under the umbrella of automation are collaborative robots (cobots) — where they are deployed in warehouses and fulfilment centres for tasks such as order picking, inventory management, and palletizing. Their ability to collaborate with human workers not only reduces the physical strain of the job, but enhances the efficiency of the order fulfilment processes.

Additionally, flexibility is a key benefit brought about by cobots. Cobots can be redeployed for other tasks during off-peak seasons, where their increased adaptability allows them to be relocated and reassigned to different tasks within a facility — from palletising and bin sorting, to picking, placing and packing. This serves to bridge any gaps within the warehouse or helps assume mundane responsibilities to facilitate the reassignment of human employees.

For instance, DCL Logistics, an omni-channel logistics company, deployed UR10e cobots as a flexible automation solution. The cobots integrate with their existing work cell setup and accurately handle the picking and packing of items into boxes in the company’s fulfilment center. Since adopting the cobots, they have seen a 500% increase in throughput on fulfilment lines due to the ability to work 24/7, and a 99.9% order accuracy rate since its launch in 2019.

This example shows that cobots can not only perform repetitive and mundane tasks with precision and speed but allow human workers to focus on more complex and value-added activities in the facility. This significant boost in efficiency allows retailers to handle the surge in order volumes during Black Friday seamlessly.

As the cobots can work round the clock — tirelessly picking, packing, and sorting items — the speed and accuracy translate into more reliable and timely order fulfilment and reduced delivery times, meeting the tight order deadlines of Black Friday and, most importantly, happy customers.

Integrating cobots into a Black Friday logistics

Despite its host of benefits, Univertsal Robots warns that integrating cobots into a Black Friday logistics strategy requires careful planning and execution:

    • Retailers would need to identify suitable tasks that can be automated by assessing current logistics processes and identify tasks that can be automated using cobots. Repetitive tasks such as picking, packing, and sorting, which are prone to human error and time-consuming should be targeted when looking to automate.
    • Workflows should be designed to incorporate cobots seamlessly. Factors such as cobot placement, task allocation, and communication between humans and cobots should be taken into account to maximize efficiency. One benefit of adopting cobots is its ease of operation, where workers can get acclimatized to working with automation within a short span of time. In the case of the UR10, workers can control the cobot through a touchpad similar to a tablet. Additionally, courses can be found online educating users on how cobots work to ensure ease of learning and implementation.
    • Lastly, the performance of cobots should also be regularly monitored with feedback from employees gathered. Retailers should make necessary adjustments to optimise workflow functionalities and address any challenges that arise to ensure a smooth moving logistics for Black Friday orders.

“As Black Friday continues to pose logistical challenges for retailers, embracing cobots and collaborative automation can be the key to success,” said Ix Lee, Head of Sales, Southrast Asia and Oceania, Universal Robots. “By leveraging the efficiency, accuracy, and flexibility offered by cobots, businesses can overcome the surge in order volumes, meet tight delivery deadlines, and optimize inventory management.”

As the sector moves towards a future of increased automation, cobots are undoubtedly the secret weapon for managing Black Friday’s logistical challenges.