Seven theses on ergonomics in logistics

Johannes Schweiger is managing director of WITRON Service GmbH + Co. KG and talks about ergonomics in the distribution center in the “logistics podcast”.

Johannes Schweiger has been with WITRON for ten years. In the interview, he explains that a distribution center is a holistic structure where economical, ecological, and social factors have to be harmonized in order to generate sustainable competitive processes for the operator in the long term: Premium customer service, high availability, leading-edge work processes for employees, resource-friendly processes for nature and the environment. Equally important, he says, is a sound service, maintenance, and operator concept. In accordance with high-performance mechanization, the human-machine interface plays a decisive role here. On this issue, he initiates an important discussion: It’s not just physical ergonomics that matters. Cognitive ergonomics is the challenge facing the industry. The Upper Palatinate states seven theses:

1. Ergonomics is no longer a complementary feature. In the past, many companies associated ergonomics primarily with the issue of maintaining the performance of older employees. Those days are over. “We operate in a labor market. Those who can’t meet basic ergonomic requirements no longer have a chance to present themselves on the market as an attractive employer”, Johannes Schweiger says. “It’s important to provide employees with a healthy, efficient, sustainable, and safe working environment on a permanent basis.”

2. Intralogistics has been very successful for years in automating manual activities and thus sustainably improving ergonomics within the internal and external supply chain. Here, WITRON was one of the pioneers in the industry, as we have been working intensively for more than 20 years on how to minimize the lifting and carrying of heavy loads for employees in the distribution center. But now the range of tasks continued to change, and we have to face this challenge as well: How do employees stay fit and what new ergonomic requirements are emerging? Cognitive ergonomics is increasingly becoming a major issue. How do we manage to make the amount of available information user-friendly and useable in a reasonable way in order to avoid information overload? How, for example, must future user interfaces or tools be designed? What will still be accepted by a new generation of employees?

3. “Technical” ergonomics is important. But cognitive ergonomics and UX will become increasingly important. Because well-designed, ergonomic workstations - both in terms of workplace design and their efficient and flexible operation - are a decisive selling point with customers. With better interfaces we create process stability, faster employee onboarding, and positive identification with the workplace, while reducing workload. “Our onsite teams only work with the best tools. Why should this be any different for software in the future? For example, with our on-demand service tool WITOOL, the handling and documentation of all active and proactive service and maintenance work becomes much more transparent, both in terms of organization and execution. Even with the new Beckhoff controls, WITRON has many more options in this area. And the inspirations come from the teams. “They are the source of ideas and critical testers”, Johannes Schweiger says. “The day-to-day experience of more than 4,000 WITRON employees on site in customers’ distribution centers is continuously incorporated into the development process of future mechanics, IT, and material flow optimization. A know-how transfer that benefits our logistics designers, design engineers, developers, and of course our customers.”

4. Despite all automation, there will still be people in the logistics center in the future. WITRON therefore constantly optimizes walkways in addition to activities such as lifting or carrying - supported by modern software. “If we need an additional cross-over or platform, then we design it”. New logistics centers consider future routes for maintenance teams already in the layout. “We want to avoid team members having to climb a lot. That’s why we optimize the positioning of critical components such as motors, for example. Ergonomics already starts with the accessibility of all system components”, Johannes Schweiger adds. Those responsible at WITRON speak of construction optimization. Even though automation has already fundamentally improved ergonomics for many picking tasks, manual picking systems still exist. There, too, software plays a decisive role in optimizing routes. “We basically consider ergonomics in the entire supply chain end-to-end in our logistics solutions”. Innovative processes not only improve the working conditions of in-house logistics staff. They also sustainably optimize the working conditions of truck drivers or store stocking teams.”

5. Ergonomics in logistics centers has significantly improved over the past five years, Johannes Schweiger says. Customers are investing in daylight, air conditioning, and noise reduction as well as in minimizing unergonomic physical working conditions. “This is a crucial point that is often overlooked”, says the WITRON managing director. In the fresh and frozen food sector, full automation is gaining ground in order to further reduce the length of stay for people there to what is absolutely necessary. Social and cultural factors are also increasingly incorporated into the design of ergonomic workplaces and processes.

6. Working from home is attractive for many employees, “but from an ergonomic point of view, it’s probably a step backward”, Johannes Schweiger explains. That’s why, in his view, mixed models are more advanced. And companies would also have to think about their workers. “Home office is difficult for service teams, for example. Rotating shift work is not ideal from an ergonomic point of view. That’s why we are dealing intensively with possibilities to make it more flexible and reduce the strain.” For example, the first onsite teams are working on a common shift model to achieve more flexibility for each team member.

7. Cognitive ergonomics is the challenge of the next few years according to WITRON. New tools such as AR or AI have potential to sustainably change work in the logistics center. But especially for the field of AI, there is still a lack of explanation for decisions made by the system. “We expect a lot from technology, but we have to think it for people and design it as a tool.”

Click here to listen to the podcast:
Witron: Seven theses on ergonomics in logistics

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