Robots, Warehouses, and Fulfillment
According to TechInsider, there are warehouse robots currently in place that could potentially boost productivity up to 800%. Yes, you read that correctly: eight hundred percent. With huge boosts in productivity, it comes as no surprise that companies such as Amazon are taking automation to the next level, but what impact will it have on their employees? If the numbers stack up, the robot takeover could be imminent, but that does not necessarily mean human warehouse employees will become obsolete.
As with most technological advances, employees must adapt. Remember when basic computers were introduced to the workplace? Let’s take a look at some of the robots being used today, how they’re being utilized, and most importantly, what it means already or is going to mean for their human ‘coworkers.’
An added human touch
The Locus Robot created by Locus Robotics recently hit the warehouse floor in Devens, Massachusetts at a mid-size warehouse owned by a company called Quiet Logistics. Quiet Logistics is known for its utilization of cutting edge technology within the fashion fulfillment industry, providing third party fulfillment for companies ranging from the likes of Bonobos to lesser known niche companies like SOXY. Unlike some of its competition, the Locus bot has a high ease of implementation and there are next to no warehouses changes necessary. It is programed to operate within an existing infrastructure, moving through aisles using sensors and patented “vision technology” that are sensitive and smart enough to move around fallen objects and take alternate paths to reach their destination.
The robot itself is not humanoid in nature, looking like a pedestal on wheels with a bin to hold items and a touchscreen monitor to interface. The bots move up and down the warehouse floor at a pace of 4.5mph and unlike warehouse workers they never tire. The idea is that warehouse employees or “pickers” no longer need to wander the aisles in search of an item ready for shipment, but Locus does not replace a worker as much as it assists one.
The bot is designed to meet the employee in the middle of the aisle then move the employee picked item to the shipping area. By removing the unproductive time employees may have spent searching for products, the bots enable their human colleagues to focus on other areas of the distribution process, including quality control. In addition living, breathing employees can increase focus on adding personal touches to each shipment, providing an added branded element crucial to the fashion companies supported by Quiet Logistics.
Working alongside automation
Amazon, on the other hand, has created an almost entirely automated warehouse system (check out the time lapse video) with their Kiva robot, dubbed “Amazon’s busiest employee” by CNET. In warehouses where the Kiva system has been implemented, there is no longer a need for human involvement in the warehouse picking process. These squat, platform style bots have efficiently and effectively taken that process over. With shelving systems established based on Kiva’s algorithm, each bot moves across the warehousing floor, grabbing shelves where the order item is located and bringing it to the employee who then selects and packs the ordered item.
With the Kiva bots the employee never has to move from the shipping area, increasing efficiency exponentially. Although Amazon has made it clear that their goal is to increase the robot workforce by upwards of 15,000 Kiva bots, CEO Jeff Bezos has stressed that no humans will lose their jobs as a result of the increase. He bases this guarantee on two factors:
First, that the maintenance required for the robot workforce has caused Amazon to hire additional engineers at their Kiva bot staffed warehouses. Skilled engineers are able to get broken down robots back on the floor, and in operational condition, within a matter of hours. Warehouse engineers strive to have no more than 10 robots off the floor at a time.
Second, Amazon’s approach to automation is focused on helping employees do their jobs, not replacing people. “We like to think of it as a symphony of software, machine learning, computer algorithms, and people,” Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman explained. Like the Quiet Logistics bots, Amazon’s automated system takes much of the grunt work out of distribution process for warehouse employees.
With constant advances in the technology utilized in warehouses, employees have to adapt – increasing their skills in the areas of creativity, personalization, quality assurance, and quality control. Humans still have advantages over their bot counterparts, including the ability to improvise and adapt to problem solve – skills that remains a necessity when technology goes awry. And when it does go awry, humans will come to the rescue in the form of engineers to keep our bots maintained, well-oiled, and fully functional.