How will robots and automated warehouses affect workers

How will robots and automated warehouses affect workers

As a new working day dawns in the warehouse, workers take their places around the floor to start their shifts. So, too, do their mechanical counterparts: The robots roll away from the freight docks where they’ve slept through the night, take their first instructions about the day’s responsibilities, and go to work.

These machines, which look like self-driving racks, are called autonomous mobile robots. The FlexShelf from Fetch Robotics, for example, is a robot on wheels that can be outfitted with up to three customizable baskets meant to hold whatever needs to be carried. It receives commands from a software system that tells humans and bots alike which items to obtain in what order makes the process more efficient. A worker may spend his day in a small section of the warehouse picking items off the warehouse shelves and loading them onto the robot assistant, which transports these items to the area to be packed and shipped to customers or stores.

This model is far from the typical picture of the 21st century warehouse, and it is staffed by walking people 9 miles or more A day to fulfill the endless demands generated by the e-commerce economy.

And Amazon, the industry’s superpower, has started Bringing bots to their warehouse after, after Buy Kiva Systems’ robotics company In 2012. This year, she launched a billion dollar fund Focusing on logistics and supply chain robotics companies, the largest spot in the sea of Robots investments in warehouses and acquisitions. Zebra Technologies, which made one of those moves by buying Fetch Robotics in 2021, has released a file White papers In May 2022, it was estimated that 27% of warehouse operators had already deployed robots such as AMRs.

Zebra has predicted that in the next five years, nearly all warehouses will use some form of robot automation to prevent being ingested by the tidal wave of online orders. And with all this automation comes questions about whether the robots are actually saving workers time or exposing them to more stress, as well as more risk of infection.

Jim Lawton, Zebra’s vice president and general manager of bot automation, told Insider that some of his company’s customers want to skip a pilot program and introduce bots into their buildings. “Someone said to me, ‘I don’t even care about the return on investment anymore,'” he said, adding that clients said they couldn’t fulfill orders and needed help.

A robot in a warehouse.

RightPick systems from RightHand Robotics are free roaming machines. It is thanks to their independence that they understand warehouse layout and have enough AI on board to know not only where to go but also how to navigate around unexpected obstacles.

Hans Heibinck

Warehouses have been slow to adopt bots. But recent technological innovations have led to a leap in direction.

The The first wave of industrial robots He started to revolutionize manufacturing in the sixtiesLouis Hyman, a labor historian at Cornell University, told Insider. Since then, the process of building a car or an airplane, for example, has become more and more mechanized. However, during the same period, the working day of the warehouse employee did not change with difficulty. “You basically hand a human a checklist and say, ‘Go get this stuff’,” Lawton said.

Storage has been slower and more cautious in adopting bots. The first large robots that began operating in warehouses were robotic guided vehicles. To prevent them from getting lost, and from interfering with or harming workers, AGVs were restricted to one lane, such as a train or car with hatches. If an obstacle blocks their way, they simply stop in their tracks.

But the new breed of AMR robots are free-roaming machines that find their own way. It is thanks to their independence that they understand warehouse layout and have enough AI on board to know not only where to go but also how to navigate around unexpected obstacles. This represents a major technological leap forward, and AMRs like Fetch’s FlexShelf need to see and understand their physical environment to navigate the warehouse floor safely and effectively.

As automation rises, so does the number of reported warehouse injuries

You would think that with robots doing more manual work, especially carrying heavy loads, humans would get injured more often. Although correlation does not necessarily imply causation, multiple Reports It found infection rates in Amazon warehouses increased as more of its warehouses became automated. (The retail giant says rates are up due to more accurate reports.)

Bobby Gosvener He went to work in the fall of 2020 at the age of 52 at a partially automated Amazon warehouse in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He told Insider he remembers the crowd of “Roombas” (what he called Amazon AGVs) and remembered the days when he saw managers confused because most of the machines were broken.

One day, during the holiday rush, he said, he returned from a quick lunch break to his work station in the warehouse mezzanine, where he made sure boxes full of things going down a conveyor belt were loaded and properly oriented. Something went wrong with the machine – the boxes got stuck and those who were backed up fell behind on the floor.

If you’re going to the bathroom, it’s best to make it quick, because the assignment leave could mean that your job will be threatened.

Gosvener said he rushed into action to get these heavy boxes back on the belt while others fell, spending hours soaked in sweat in perpetual motion. (He said Amazon had no intention of slowing or stopping the line during the Christmas rush.) After waking up in agony the next day and unable to lift one arm, Gosvener was reassigned to light work, such as running COVID-19 checks on fellow staff members, but said he couldn’t even do so without pain. Later, it was discovered that he had a deep strain in the trapezius muscle. He said that after a protracted workers compensation battle for health care insurance, he is now on the road to recovery, a process he expects to take two years. (Amazon declined to respond to a request for comment.)

Robots in warehouses

A fleet of RightHand Robotics’ RightPick systems is deployed on 220,000 square feet of Group’s facility in the Netherlands.

Hans Heibinck

Looking back, Gosvener says it’s clear why high rates of automation and warehouse injuries go hand in hand. Robots are not colliding with humans and causing havoc, he said, but are the result of what the arrival of robots portends: an ever faster, unforgiving pace of work and workplace culture.

“We have something called ‘Important leave’He said of Amazon’s controversial time-tracking policy, where your time is measured, up to the very moment. Which has become so common, Gosvener said, the tasks left to human workers are those that slow down processes, putting extra pressure on people to use every second productively. “And if you’re going to the bathroom, You better make it fastBecause downtime could mean your job will be threatened.”

But workers agree that any help is better than none, especially knowing that technology can only get better

In the heyday of traditional stores, shoppers offered the free labor of walking the aisles, selecting the items they wanted, and carrying those items forward for payment. But online shopping fits that work on warehouse employees. “This rapid leap in how easy and convenient it is to order anything, anywhere, at any time – the supply chain and fulfillment just wasn’t ready,” said Vince Martinelli, Head of Product and Marketing at RightHand RobotsInside, he said. “Still catching up.”

In that environment, there is evidence that workers are open to some help. a Harvard Business Review survey of 77 warehouse workers in 2022 They find that they view warehouse automation slightly more positively than negatively. While workers were concerned about job losses and dealing with technical failures, they were optimistic that robots could make their work safer and more productive.

For historian Cornell Hyman, this is true. “It’s a question of whether or not these types of tools are complements or alternatives,” he said. In other words, warehouse bots are desirable as long as they are good enough to work alongside humans and take on some hard work – but not good enough to take our place.

What are bots still struggling with?

Hyman said the robots are adept at tasks humans weren’t built for, which is to move heavy loads and instantly analyze huge data sets to make the repository run more efficiently. However, they often struggle with tasks that we find easy, especially seeing and grabbing objects.

Think of a box of 100 paperclips, Luton said. This 100 crate is just one of many such boxes within a medium sized box of boxes, and this crate of boxes can be packed inside a larger container. A human warehouse worker asked to retrieve a box or two of 100 clips that knows what to do: our hands are skilled and able to hold, and if we need to open a new chest of boxes to fulfill the order, that’s simple too.

Not so for Android. Every seemingly simple part of the process — figuring out how many items are left in the box, figuring out how to handle and open the box with a knife, picking something with enough force not to drop it, but not so much to crush it — is a very complex job for a robot, given how limited vision and computerized movement are compared to With the human eye and hand.

Robot machines in warehouse

In the warehouse set up for success—with the ability to predict and place the contents of each chest in the same place—RightHand bots can pick a person.

Hans Heibinck

However, complex work is not an impossible task. RightHand Robotics is a company that makes robotic arms that, with extensive training, machine learning, and computer vision, can do the warehouse job of picking items and boxes out of chests. Martinelli said these RightPick fixed arms aren’t equipped to handle large items or sort through a box of different items.

However, in a warehouse set up for their success, where the contents of each chest are predictable and always placed in the same place, RightHand bots can pick someone out, Martinelli said. After all, they never get tired. But creating this environment will force companies to reshape the warehouse again.

If bots can see and grab individual items, can they one day take on every task in the warehouse, essentially removing humans from the process? Lawton, for example, doesn’t think we’re on the cusp of what people in the industry calldark warehousesHe argues that humans will need to drive forklifts moving large boxes and bulky objects, and they are better at Tetris, which is a game like packing freight.

And of course, they’ll need to be around to fix the bots.

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