Amazon will be deploying robotic machines to automate jobs already held by thousands of human workers in their warehouses. The robots can pack up hundreds of boxes per hour and can also wrap up packages that have been custom-built for each item. Even though each robot costs over a million dollars per unit, the company will expect to make up for costs in two years. Although they said robots will not replace workers in factories, they have made a revision.
Amazon has also considered deploying machines at dozens of warehouses, creating job losses for 24 positions with each new installation. Resulting in over 1,500 job cuts across 55 Amazon factories in the U.S. Amazon also has an interest in removing humans from warehouse job placements in an effort to reduce labor costs. This may prove to be a more difficult task than expected, however, due to robots' inability to pick up items out of bins.
An Amazon employee places a customer order in a fulfillment center in Baltimore, Maryland. (Image Credit: Patrick Semansky / AP Photo Files)
The company will not be laying human workers off in the future. Instead, they won't hire any new workers when robots start handling tasks. They will also re-locate other workers into other jobs in the warehouse. When the robots, known as CartonWrap, built by the Italian firm CMC Srl, are put to use, they can pack up to 600-700 boxes per hour, 4-5 times faster than the average human worker. They do requite one human worker to load customer orders on a conveyor belt and another to stock cardboard and glue. The machines would take care of sealing and labeling of packages, resulting in less wasted packing material, saving money. By transitioning human workers into other jobs instead of replacing them, it gives Amazon the opportunity to create new jobs for those workers involving robots, like repair work.
The addition of the robotic machinery in Amazon's warehouses isn't intended to focus on speed, but rather on efficiency and savings. Amazon also has other machines like the "SmartPac," which is mainly used as a way to deliver packages in patented envelopes. There is uncertainty about which roles would be replaced first and which sort of incentives will be used in other jobs.
Companies like JD.com, Walmart, and Shutterfly have also used CMC's packing machines. Walmart first started using the machines 3.5 years ago, and they have installed the machines in other locations across the U.S. Amazon has numerous employees at each warehouse who have different variations of the same task. Some do inventory, pick customer orders, grab orders, while some place them in the right box before packaging them up for shipment.
Various companies and university researchers are looking to automate this line of work, hoping to reach their goal sooner rather than later. Even if artificial intelligence is improving, there is no guarantee that the accuracy can help prevent accidents or switch between picking up/handling items easily.
One of the vendors' technologies Amazon has tested is Soft Robotics, a startup company based in Boston that used octopus tentacles as inspiration to make robotic grippers more versatile. Amazon is automating around gripping technology when it comes to packing customer orders.
Amazon has already installed the machines in warehouses that are driving distance from Seattle, Frankfurt, Milan, Amsterdam, Manchester and in other factory sites. The machines have the potential to automate over 24 jobs in a factory. The company is also in the process of setting up two dozen U.S. factories for small and non-specialty inventory.
Amazon has stated that the savings in efficiency will allow them to create new jobs in customer service. Maybe it’s all for the better after all.
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