Robots Won’t Close the Warehouse Worker Gap Anytime Soon

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This July, Amazon showed off Many of the new warehouse robots whose names are borrowed from Sesame Street are probably meant to evoke the wonder of childhood rather than the dread of the future.

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bert, a wheeled robot about the size of a filing cabinet, navigates around a warehouse carrying products. ernie, a large industrial robotic arm, moves totes full of packages from conveyors to shelves. Scooter And kermit Both are intelligent forklifts, capable of hauling multiple carts or stacks of plastic totes from one side of a warehouse.

The new machines demonstrate potential for automation in more areas of warehouse and package-sorting work, an important part of the economy as ecommerce orders climb. Competitors like Walmart and FedEx are also in a hurry to adopt robots. It may seem like the machines are ready to be taken to warehouses – and help make up for a severe shortage of human workers. There were a record 490,000 job opportunities in the US in July 2021 in the transportation and warehousing industries, a reduction that will be particularly felt during Black Friday and Cyber ​​Monday order and fulfillment shortages.


But not so soon. The rush to adopt more automation does not mean that artificial intelligence and robots will remove the workforce. Amazon’s prototype robots haven’t yet been able to do the most challenging and important job inside its fulfillment centers: picking up multiple products stored on its shelves. They just aren’t smart enough.

Amazon has already invested heavily in warehouse robots. In 2012 it acquired Kiva Systems, a company that enabled robots to steer shelves by scooting down and lifting them up. These robots follow markers on the floor and deliver shelves filled with hundreds of products to human workers, who must find the right item in a bin. Amazon has since acquired more robotics firm, top robotics researchers hired, and the funded challenges aim to solve major problems in the field.

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Amazon spokesman Kent Hollenbeck says some of the new bots, which have yet to be deployed, have artificial intelligence for sensing and navigation. For example, new mobile robots can navigate around human workers.

But machines only automate work that requires limited intelligence, such as avoiding obstacles or lifting heavy items from a limited number of shelves. Amazon’s new robotic arm, Ernie, will still need to be done away from human workers so they don’t accidentally get hurt.

get Smart

The role of robots in the economy is undoubtedly changing. For many years, robot jobs were limited to industries where labor-intensive, dangerous, and precisely repetitive tasks were suitable for automation. The most important adoption is in automotive manufacturing, where broadly 38 percent All industrial robots are found.

The past decade has seen a shift towards safer, lower-cost robotic arms and mobile robots. And in recent years, some startups, like cooperater, osaro, righthand robotics, and others, are using a form of AI called machine learning to create machines that can pick up a wide range of objects.

AI holds significant promise for making robots more capable. Instead of blindly following a routine, an AI-enabled machine can understand, learn what’s in front of it, and try to respond intelligently. Someday, intelligent robots may be able to pick up on an unfamiliar object or solve a problem without human assistance.

Warehouses in particular are seeing unprecedented growth in automation, says matt bean, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara who studies the adoption and use of advanced robots. According to recent data, worldwide sales of “professional service robots” have increased by 41 percent during 2020 International Federation of Robotics, while money spent in that category increased by 14 percent – ​​meaning the technology continues to get cheaper. Robot arms sales in the US alone grew 37 percent year-on-year in the first nine months of 2021. Association to advance automationNow competing with auto manufacturing with warehouse delivery.

But Bean also noted that the vast majority of this growth involved technology that’s been around for decades, such as simple sorting systems or dumb industrial robots, like Amazon’s current fleet, that perform repetitive tasks without optimization. Huh.

Bean says that only a small portion of the deployments use actual AI, such as robots that cause it to make sense of an unfamiliar object. For now, he says, robots can pick up confined objects from a bin or a conveyor, or navigate around buildings, but they can’t move people who perform complex manipulations and face problems. But fail.

“I don’t know of a single person who has lost their job because of an AI-enabled robot,” he says. “That’s not to say it hasn’t happened, but it’s very rare and very experimental.”

Amazon’s competitors are rushing to adopt more automation as they try to keep up, and investors are pouring big bucks into startups working on warehouse robots. for example, Berkshire Gray, a Massachusetts company that sells custom robotic automation to a number of retailers and fulfillment companies, raised a total of $413 million before going public through the SPAC deal in February of this year. Investment in warehouse robotics grew by 57 percent in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019 a report From Pitchbook.

It is unclear how the use of traditional robots has affected the workforce at Amazon or elsewhere. Tasks like selecting and packing products often require human dexterity and intelligence, and Amazon says it will hire Over 150,000 seasonal workers To help deal with the surge in orders. Again, the company may need even more workers if it weren’t for robots.

More robots could help fill a labor shortage in the short term, but it could ultimately mean eliminating some jobs. Some research shows The adoption of robotics in the US economy since 1990 has resulted in fewer jobs and lower wages.

automation nation

Amazon isn’t alone in embracing automation to sort packages and products, even if some of its competitors are shying away from hardcore robots.

last November, walmart Decided to stop using a robot that roams stores counting inventory on shelves, claiming it made no improvement over human workers. But this July retailer Touted a package-handling project involving robotic automation Developed in collaboration with a company called symbolic, The developed system includes custom-built machinery that removes boxes from pallets before sorting and routing them through a Walmart facility. The system takes the place of some human labor, but requires only limited machine intelligence.

FedEx is experimenting with technology that helps automate the sorting of small packages and letters. Aaron Prather, senior technical advisor for robotics, automation and workforce development at FedEx, says that where automation is introduced, it usually relieves workers from mundane tasks. He says the use of AI is limited and the system is still improving. “A lot of them are low-hanging fruit,” he says.

“The big realization in the industry is that there are always edge cases that engineers didn’t anticipate,” says Daniel Theobald, cofounder and chief innovation officer vecna robotics, a firm in Massachusetts that retrofits forklifts with sensors and autonomous software for companies including FedEx. “You need to ask for help when the robot needs help.”

Plus One Robotics, a company that makes AI for robots, has developed a system that FedEx is testing to sort letters and small packages. But even this relatively simple task is taxing for AI, says Plus One CEO Eric Nieves, who notes that a human has to intervene about seven times an hour when the system has difficulty deciding what to do. There is where to understand the package or letter from the pile.

At least one advantage of AI is that it can improve over time, even if those improvements are incremental. For example, the Vecna ​​recently released a software update that lets its forklifts go faster. Nieves, who previously worked for a company that supplied robots to automotive companies in Detroit, says that even though robots won’t solve the current workforce shortage, they’re a more significant part of warehouse workers at times. can become. “I’ve lived it before,” he says in the context of automotive manufacturing. “The warehouse will get there eventually.”

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