E-commerce titan, Amazon, now has more than 100,000 collaborative robot workers inside the premises of their warehouse globally.
In an 80,000 square meters depot, these orange robots are busy sorting, lifting, and picking, packing and distributing thousands of items sold by the online giant.
Amazon acquired warehouse automation company Kiva in 2012 for $775 million but only started to utilize the robots in 2014.
During an MIT Technology Review, Tye Brady Chief Technologist - Amazon Robotics told an audience, “When there are tens of thousands of orders going on simultaneously, you are getting beyond what a human can do.”
After a shopper clicks ‘buy now’ on their computers or phones, it takes 60-75 minutes for a human to complete the click-to-ship cycle manually. Now, the cobots, or collaborative robots, can accomplish the same task for only 15 minutes. Not only is it more efficient but they also occupy less space compared to the same number of human employees. That means narrower aisles and more shelf space.
Brady emphasized how collaborative robots have changed the way the company operates. "What used to take more than a day now takes less than an hour," he said as he describes how they are capable to fit 40 percent more goods inside the same footprint.
As the robots become more widespread in the warehouse, there is an increased risk for accidents likely to happen due to human error in operating the robot or AI malfunctions. Amazon has been working on this concern and also took advantage of technology for robots to interact with humans safely.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration affirmed, “Studies indicate that many robot accidents occur during non-routine operating conditions, such as programming, maintenance, testing, setup, or adjustment. During many of these operations, the worker may temporarily be within the robot’s working envelope where unintended operations could result in injuries.”
According to TechCrunch, the Amazon has created ‘Robotic Tech Vest’ to help improve worker safety while working with robots inside its warehouses. The vest has built-in sensors created especially for human workers who need to fix the cobots or pick-up fallen items.
“In the past, associates would mark out the grid of cells where they would be working in order to enable the robotic traffic planner to smartly route around that region,” Amazon Robotics Vice President Brad Porter told Tech Crunch.
The vest alerts the robots to the whereabouts of the wearer and automatically updates its travel plan to avoid any sort of collision. The bots will automatically slow down and steer clear of humans. With this, the entire operation will not be disrupted for a single fix.
Amazon Robotics VP Brad Porter elaborated how it works more clearly, “All of our robotic systems employ multiple safety systems ranging from training materials, to physical barriers to entry, to process controls, to onboard. In the past, associates would mark out the grid of cells where they would be working in order to enable the robotic traffic planner to smartly route around that region. What the vest allows the robots to do is detect the human from farther away and smartly update its travel plan to steer clear without the need for the associate to explicitly mark out those zones.”
This solution came up after 24 warehouse employees have been hospitalized after an Amazon robot tore open a can of bear repellant last December 2018. One employee was reported to be in critical condition. More than 50 employees were affected by the incident.
Amazon has also been reported to be one of the most dangerous places to work in the US. The US National Council for Occupational Safety and Health found that a total of seven Amazon employees have been killed in Amazon warehouses since 2013.
Amazon’s Collaborative Robots: Beneficial or Detrimental?
Amazon now has more than 25 robotic centers. Tye Brady implied that it transformed the ways how the company operates. These fulfillment centers have helped maintain Amazon’s market dominance in global online sales. It perfectly depicts how robots can take over a human’s job. This fact never denies the assumption that one day humans will be pushed out of business equations which artificial intelligence will be dominating.
Brady claims that the robot-human symphony at the Staten Island warehouse had provided them a “beautiful edge” over the rivals.
The giant of online sales had recently operationalized an AI-powered supermarket that is completely check-out free in downtown Seattle. This poses a threat with more job losses by totally replacing human cashiers with AI.
In Staten Island, other than tech-vest wearers, there are still human stowers, pickers, and packers who manually load up products and sort products that are meant for the same customers and customize shipping boxes.
For 33 years, Tye Brady has worked with robotics. He was a spacecraft engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and on Draper Laboratory with lunar landing systems. Brady strongly claims that the use of “AI-powered collaborative robots” is the key to future human productivity and job growth.
"It's a myth that robotics and automation kill jobs, it's just a myth," according to Brady. Ever since Amazon acquired Kiva, gains had undeniably boosted. The company created 300, 000 new jobs since Amazon went all-in with robotics. There are approximately 645,000 Amazon employees now, not to include seasonal hiring jobs. “The data really can’t be denied on this. The more robots we add to our fulfillment centers, the more jobs we are creating,” he exclaimed without declaring the possibility of more job loss at traditional stores.
Amazon’s investment in robotic fulfillment centers may intentionally aim to totally automate jobs held by humans. Kevin Lynch of Northwestern University with expertise in AI says that cobots will eventually eliminate certain jobs.
"I also think other jobs will be created but it is easier to predict the jobs that will be lost than the jobs that will be created," he said. "Robotics and AI clearly have brought benefits to humanity in terms of health, welfare, happiness, and quality of life" Lynch added. Robotics and AI may sharpen economic inequality but Lynch believes that public policy will play a great role to ensure these benefits are shared.
Now, Amazon is working to pilot delivery robots that will deliver packages door to door. The robots are created to autonomously reach the shopper’s home but these early prototypes are still on tests to ensure their efficiency.