Robots in the warehouse

Working ‘with’ or ‘against’ the machine? Optimizing human-robot collaboration in logistic warehouses. (2018-2019, NWO-MVI).

The introduction of advanced robotics in logistics significantly affects quality of work and workers’ competence profiles. The fear that robotization will strip all motivating aspects from jobs is widespread and may lead to worker resistance. Successfully addressing these ‘human’ issues requires an interdisciplinary approach. This project aims to answer the question of how robotization in logistic warehouses can be developed in a way that does not conflict with workers’ sense of meaning in work and general well being. We hypothesize that this is best achieved when workers retain a sense of ‘ownership’ (i.e., control and responsibility) in their work, understand the aims of introducing robots and their functioning, and have a sense of working ‘with’ instead of ‘under’ or ‘against’, robots.

Ethicists and philosophers of technology have recently begun investigating the impact that extensive robotization and automation may have on the sense of meaning or purpose that people often associate with work. There is also a recent upsurge in academic research on how automation and robotization affect human control and responsibility, which are directly related to both the social acceptance of automated technologies and the well-being and sense of meaning of users of these technologies. The above considerations are particularly relevant for the introduction of advanced robotics in warehouses.

In addition, the nature of people’s jobs (i.e., key job characteristics) is often profoundly affected by the introduction of robots in the workplace, with direct implications for their critical psychological states such as experienced meaningfulness of their work and the fulfillment of basic human needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness. In turn, this will affect their work motivation, well being and (effective) performance. Important questions in this respect are, for example:

  • Will people trust robots to perform operations that robots are capable of, without oversight?
  • If things go wrong, will people take appropriate responsibility to correct the problem, or will they abdicate responsibility to the robot?
  • In the face of uncertainty, will people ask for and accept the guidance of expert robots?
  • What aspects of the design of robots will affect the way people and robots work together?     

Our main research question is how robotization in logistic warehouses can be optimally utilized and further developed in a way that does not conflict with human workers’ sense of work-related meaningfulness and well being. This main research question can be broken down into the following sub-questions:

  1. How does robotization in warehouses impact on job characteristics that are known to influence (a) workers’ sense of meaning, control and responsibility in work, (b) their work attitudes, and (c) their well being, collaboration and performance?
  2. What are the best ways of (a) conceptualizing the evolving roles and responsibilities human workers play within human-robot collaborations? Under (b) what circumstances – in terms of control and understanding – can workers appropriately be understood as working ‘with’, rather than ‘under’ or ‘against’, robots?
  3. How can the answers to the above questions be used to favorably influence warehouse workers’ attitudes towards and acceptance of robots?
  4. What new knowledge, skills and abilities are required of workers when advanced robotics are being implemented in logistic warehouses and what does this imply for their education and training?
  5. How to translate our theoretical (ethical/psychological) framework into a practical tool (i.e., roadmap) to chart and monitor the key social factors in the implementation and operation of advanced robotics in logistic warehouses?

Project team members: dr. S.R Nyholm (P&E), dr. P.M. Le Blanc (HPM), dr. S. Rispens (HPM)