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How one company is proving the future of distribution is automation

robot automation
Posted at 10:30 AM, Dec 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-23 10:30:57-05

BRIGHTON, Colo. — Autonomous technology is changing industries worldwide, taking humans out of dangerous situations and putting robots in their place.

From behind his screen, Zachary Moss queues up, moves and watches what's happening in the truck yard. As a senior test operations technician for Outrider, he watches an 80,000-pound robot do his old job.

"I went from running trucking routes in Colorado in the mountains and in and out of distribution yards to getting to test software for these autonomous vehicles," Moss said. "Working in cold, working in the dark, ending up in distribution yards on a regular basis, having to wait for paperwork to be signed out, waiting for forklift operators to unload me or load me or having to do it myself. A lot of physical labor, moving tens of thousands of pounds a day to complete a 14-hour shift."

Outrider is reinventing the distribution industry by automating yard operations at thousands of distribution warehouses across the world. The company takes people like Moss out of danger and puts him in operations.

"Right now, it's this classic dull, dirty and dangerous environment. You've got 80,000-pound pieces of equipment that are being moved in a hazardous environment for humans. You don't want to be around these vehicles," said Andrew Smith, the CEO and founder of Outrider. "What we have is a fully-autonomous system that, with a click of a button — or even better, just with some electrons sending a command — we can move 40,000-pound containers effortlessly with autonomous, zero-emission trucks that are robotically connected to and from these trailers, moving between parking spots and loading bays and being positioned for those over-the-road trucks to pick them up."

Outrider is essentially reinventing the link between the warehouse door and over-the-road transportation, all while creating efficiency for drivers on the road.

It's a crucial part of the supply chain that moves around 10 billion tons of freight annually.

"The average trucker spends up to four hours waiting to get in and out of a distribution facility," Smith said. "We can save literally millions of hours for truck drivers as well as enhancing the efficiently of the distribution facility."

Analysts like Mark Fontecchio agree that automation is where the industry is moving.

"Commercial transportation and logistics and shipping, historically they have been averse to technology adoption. They've been slower to adopt technology compared to other industries. But that is starting to change, and automation is a huge part of that," Fontecchio said.

As Fontecchio points out, one of the biggest concerns about the changes is the potential loss of jobs.

"I think a big misconception is that autonomous vehicles are going to take people's jobs, but really, that's not the case at all. Really, it's a transition of roles and responsibilities and managing these vehicles," said Tyler Hultz, the test operations lead at Outrider. "Most of my team is former truck drivers. It's nice seeing those guys go from one field to another. No one lost a job, and if anything, they feel like they gained something in their careers."

According to a Bell Policy Center analysis, a total of 1.1 million Coloradans are working in occupations judged as high risk of being automated. Leaders in the industry like Smith say automation does not equal the disqualification of human employees.

"We have the ability to reallocate people and really avoid direct job loss while getting all the benefits of the productivity of the system," Smith said. "And in the process of doing that, we're eliminating these dull, dirty, dangerous jobs and creating jobs in all sorts of other areas."

"I've seen just the opposite," Moss said. "I've seen a lot of new positions come around. This whole company is full of people that are working to design safer, better systems for people to use."

Those safer operations revolve around stopping the damage that distribution is doing to the environment.

"The diesel emissions that are given off is equivalent to a coal-fired power plant," Smith said. "So, just by addressing these yards and moving this critical link in the supply chain, it's like taking a coal-fired power plant out of commission."

Smith points out the success of automation can only work if it goes hand-in-hand with sustainability.

"Sustainability is really core to who we are as a company, but it's also core to what the future of supply chain is going to look like," Smith said.