Warehouse Robotics See Advances in Technology

Warehouse robots are a big part of the revolution transforming a growing portion of consumer shopping from stores to online. Amazon led the way by purchasing the Kiva system and then keeping it for itself so other competitors could not spring up easily. (See my 2016 Social Contract article, “Amazon Robotics: A case study of how smart machines transformed an internet store.”)

Below, Kiva robots operate from a computer system that tracks and moves everything in the warehouse. The robots scoot under mobile racks of merchandise and move needed items to human-run packing stations for shipment.

But technology designers have been catching up with different sorts of robots that do the same work as the Kiva models.

The loss to society is a large sector of jobs in retail, and they are disappearing from the semi-public space of stores to private areas of warehouses where we don’t see humans replaced by machines. The “death of retail” is now a grim topic on the financial pages, as major retail companies are closing some or all of their stores. In January, Time reported “Department Stores Are in a Death Spiral” with the example that Macys planned to close 100 stores with the loss of 10,000 jobs. Other big-name retailers are cutting back severely as well. The story notes that as online outlets improve shipping time, shoppers increasingly use brick and mortar stores less.

The long-term outlook for jobs is dismal throughout the economy because of smart machines, yet Washington continues to import human workers as if there will be a need for them in the automated future, which there won’t. Oxford researchers forecast in 2013 that nearly half of American jobs were vulnerable to machine or software replacement within 20 years. Rice University computer scientist Moshe Vardi believes that in 30 years humans will become largely obsolete, and world joblessness will reach 50 percent. The Gartner tech advising company believes that one-third of jobs will be done by machines by 2025. Forrester Research Inc. has a more optimistic view, that there will be a net job loss of 7 percent by 2025 from automation. The recent PwC forecast was only slightly less severe than the Oxford numbers. So every automation expert thinks the technology will decrease jobs which is why business is investing big money to switch away from wage earners.

It remains to be seen how many jobs President Trump can raise in America: there is certainly repressed business energy to be tapped after eight years of Obama policies. But long term, many human jobs are being replaced by machines, and we should act accordingly. Step one should be slashing immigration because America won’t need a million new workers per year.

Automation makes immigration obsolete.

Washington needs to wake up to the technological future. It will be very different.

Amazon’s Robot War Is Spreading, Bloomberg, April 5, 2017
A slew of new automation specialists appear on the warehouse battlefield.

It was Amazon that drove America’s warehouse operators into the robot business.

Quiet Logistics, which ships apparel out of its Devens, Mass., warehouse, had been using robots made by a company called Kiva Systems. When Amazon bought Kiva in 2012, Quiet hired scientists. In 2015 it spun out a new company called Locus Robotics, which raised $8 million in venture capital. Last year, Locus unveiled its own warehouse robotics solution called the LocusBot—first using it for its own business, then selling them to companies that ship everything from housewares to auto parts.

Now, Locus has landed a bigger fish: It’s selling its robots to DHL Supply Chain (a unit of Deutsche Post DHL Group), the world’s largest third-party logistics company. DHL will use the machines at a Memphis, Tenn., location to help ship surgical devices to operating rooms across the country.

To do that, Locus’s software directs a LocusBot to a shelf where the specific item is located. A human worker meets it there, reads a description of the item off an iPad, and drops it into a plastic bucket mounted on the machine. The idea is that the robot does the majority of the traveling, while the worker simply patrols a specified zone.

“The first trend was to try to replace humans,” said Rick Faulk, chief executive of Locus. “Now it’s about humans and robots working collaboratively.” The sticker price on a LocusBot is $35,000.

Locus isn’t alone. Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva set off an arms race among robot makers and shippers across the U.S. who scurried to keep up with the e-commerce giant. That includes 6 River Systems, a Waltham, Mass.-based company founded by former Kiva employees, which this week is showing its robot at ProMat, an industry trade show in Chicago. There’s also Fetch, a company in San Jose, Calif., whose robot scuttles around warehouses and also does the walking for workers.

The big changes in warehouse robotics, said Adrian Kumar, vice president for solutions design at DHL, come in response to the rise of e-commerce. For decades, operators were focused on the task of loading pallets and shipping them to retailers, who broke up the shipments and routed them to retail locations. Fulfilling online orders, on the other hand, requires shippers to pack boxes with a diverse set of individual items and route them on to customers’ homes.

At the Quiet Logistics warehouse, the robots shorten the distance a warehouse worker travels on a typical day from 14 miles to less than 5 miles, Faulk said. The robots, meanwhile, park themselves directly in front of the shelf that the worker is supposed to pick from, decreasing the risk the human will pick the wrong item. That makes the job easier, and is appealing to employees. “Working with robots is a fun thing to do,” Faulk said. 

What that means for warehouse humans is an open question. There were 939,000 people working in the industry in February, up 44 percent over the past 10 years, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rise of e-commerce has created a need for more hands to pick items and pack boxes. Seattle-based Amazon.com Inc.’s rapid shipping times have taught customers to expect goods on their doorstep in two days or less, fueling a warehouse boom as retailers scramble to amass distribution hubs closer to their shoppers.

Logistics firms can have a hard time hiring enough people, particularly during peak shopping seasons. Adding robots should ease some of the seasonal shortages, and may make the work less physically demanding. Working conditions at U.S. warehouses are often scrutinized for their grueling nature: Pickers complain of exhausting shifts, sometimes in oppressive heat or biting cold. Many of the jobs are temporary, fluctuating with the shopping calendar.

Across the economy, almost 25 million jobs will be lost to automation in the next 10 years, while the new technology will create 15 million jobs, according to research firm Forrester. In the logistics business, smarter warehouse bots will likely reduce the number of people it takes to run a fulfillment center.

“I don’t think people are investing in automation because of a near-term labor shortage,” said Karl Siebrecht, CEO at Flexe, a Seattle-based company that bills itself as the Airbnb of warehouse space. “It’s about improving productivity. Fundamentally, that means people will be replaced.”

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