Future of Work: Automation in Warehousing
This spring, Walmart made headlines by adding shelf-scanning robots to 50 more stores across the country. The robots scan for items that are out of stock or mislabeled and alert human employees to the errors. The robot’s predictable work frees up employees to help customers—or to restock or correctly label the items the robot identified.
We’ve had automation in warehouses for decades. The growth has been mostly incremental, from using pneumatic and hydraulic systems to designing and building factories around a system of integrated and cooperative robotics. We’ve gotten higher quality products, and we’ve saved money and lives by giving the machines the more dangerous tasks.
As online shopping has surged, retail warehouses are more important than ever, and the competition to keep costs down and increase efficiency is intense.
Amazon Warehousing Robots
Amazon has become notorious for buying up robotic technologies to create a strong automated warehouse. Amazon acquired Kiva Systems, who supplied several companies with robotic fulfillment systems. Amazon did not renew the contracts, so the robots only work for Amazon’s warehouses.
Instead of using a convey system or forklifts, Amazon’s warehouse uses portable storage units. The robot closest to an ordered item drives to the storage unit and brings it to a human operator. The fleet of robots is networked, so they won’t collide with each other. The robots adapt to the pace of the human worker—so there shouldn’t be any need to shove truffles à la Lucy and Ethel.
Automation vs. Autonomy
It’s important to distinguish between automation, the use of largely automatic equipment to execute predictable and repeatable tasks, and autonomy, freedom from external control or influence. Automation has been around for decades in warehouses, enjoying a slower development, especially when compared to the advances in technologies required by autonomous vehicles. A few months ago, we touched on levels of autonomy for vehicles—ranging from assisting the driver by adjusting speed based on sensor data to full automation, where the car undertakes all aspects of driving.
The bridge between automation and autonomy looks a lot like Amazon’s warehouses: robots interacting with humans in a shared workspace. These collaborative robots (“cobots”) work alongside humans, aiding in repetitive or tedious tasks, allowing the human to focus on more creative aspects of the job without risking injury or being prone to errors.
One area that robots have fallen short in so far is quality control. Quality control needs human-level visual understanding and reasoning, along with adapting to changing products and conditions. Companies like Valkri are developing deep learning for AI-enabled sensors to improve quality control.
We keep coming back to the McKinsey study that says that about half the tasks we do as paid workers can be automated using current technologies. As our workplaces catch up with enabling technologies, our jobs will shift. And if we don’t adapt, we’ll be left behind.
Last fall, Google announced the Grow With Google initiative, designed to offer tech training to those who are interested in expanding their skills and marketability in the face of uncertainty and concern about the pace of technological change.
The time to act is now: We anticipate seeing more aggressive developments in technologies suited for product transportation, packaging, and quality control, and we’re anticipating new types of jobs to develop out of these environments where robots and humans work alongside each other.
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