Amazon is betting big on robots handling many, if not most, of the order fulfillment tasks now being carried out by humans in its giant packing and shipping warehouses.
So even though it's good news that Amazon is going to build a warehouse here in Salem that reportedly will employ a thousand full-time employees, this excerpt from an article in a recent issue of The New Yorker, "Welcoming Our New Robot Overlords," gives good reason for concern about how long those jobs will last.
For low-skilled workers, warehouse jobs have seemed to be something of a bright spot. Even if fewer people are required to staff a Target or a Sam’s Club outlet, the movement of products requires a network of warehouses to store and ship goods.
Amazon—the world’s largest online retailer—currently has more than ninety thousand employees at its U.S. distribution centers, and plans to hire tens of thousands more. Workers still do the “picking” in a warehouse, using their dexterous fingers and discerning brains to take soap and coffee and tubes of toothpaste and millions of other products off the shelves and put them into boxes to fulfill the online shopping orders that make up an increasing portion of consumers’ buying patterns.
But the same factors that make warehouses a draw for labor have made them a tempting target for automation. In 2012, Amazon spent almost eight hundred million dollars to buy a robotics company called Kiva, which makes robots that can zoom around a factory floor and move tall stacks of shelves of up to seven hundred and fifty pounds in weight.
A Deutsche Bank research report estimated that Amazon could save twenty-two million dollars a year by introducing the Kiva machines in a single warehouse; the savings company-wide could reach into the billions. With such a powerful incentive, Amazon is on a quest to acquire or develop systems that can replace human pickers. When, in June, it announced plans to buy the Whole Foods supermarket chain, speculation quickly spread that the company intended to automate the grocer’s food-distribution centers as well as its stores.
Robots aren't going to replace human "pickers" overnight, given the difficulty in designing machines that can do a task that's easy for people but complex for current machines.
But that day is coming. In "Grasping Robots Compete to Rule Amazon's Warehouses," this Wired story says:
Squat wheeled machines carry boxes around in more than 20 of the company’s cavernous fulfillment centers across the globe. But it falls exclusively to humans to do things like pulling items from shelves or placing them into those brown boxes that bring garbage bags and pens and books to our homes.
Robots able to help with so-called picking tasks would boost Amazon’s efficiency—and make it much less reliant on human workers. It’s why the company has invited a motley crew of mechanical arms, grippers, suction cups—and their human handlers—to Nagoya, Japan, this week to show off their manipulation skills.
...Amazon has run versions of its challenge in two previous years. This time around, though, the retail giant has revised the rules in ways that make the competition more difficult. “I think it’s getting closer to the real conditions you would find in a warehouse,” says Juxi Leitner, who leads a team from the Australian Centre of Excellence for Robotic Vision. “They’re getting people to work on a problem they think they will need to solve to stay competitive without needing to hire anyone.”
...When asked to estimate how long before a commercial-grade robot could do tasks similar to those presented in Amazon’s contest, Rodriguez of MIT guesses five years. Robotic fingers are getting nimbler but still have much to learn. Amazon’s mechanized picking contest could be an annual event for a while yet.
A previous 2014 Wired story contains a quotation from an Amazon executive that shows the optimistic spin the company is trying to put on its major push into robotics.
But if robots move Amazon's merchandise faster while costing less overall, won't Amazon try to find ways to replace as many of those human workers as possible? Clark says that won't happen, because the rise in productivity will give Amazon the means to grow. And growth means Amazon will need to hire more people.
Well, that has held true so far. But my bet is that robots are going to be replacing workers in Amazon's Salem warehouse within five years.
A Statesman Journal story had some glowing comments from Oregon Governor Kate Brown and Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett.
Brown heralded the move, saying in a statement: “Amazon’s continued expansion in Oregon means more jobs and bright futures for the Oregonians who work there and live in the surrounding communities."
Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett welcomed Amazon to town with a statement: "Salem is looking forward to partnering with Amazon to create innovative jobs and develop a lasting relationship with our vibrant community."
With ever more sophisticated warehouse robots being developed by Amazon, there's good reason to doubt that the people who will be hired initially for the warehouse jobs have "bright futures." And the "innovative jobs" Bennett speaks of will require considerable technological expertise.
Meaning, robots will be doing most of the work now being done by humans. The role of people will be to keep the robots functioning smoothly, and that won't be an entry-level job.