Nation & World

Robots taking over warehousing jobs

And the need some human supervision

In this Dec. 17, 2019, photo an Amazon delivery driver checks stowed containers for delivery after Amazon robots deliver
In this Dec. 17, 2019, photo an Amazon delivery driver checks stowed containers for delivery after Amazon robots deliver separated packages by Zip code at an Amazon warehouse facility in Goodyear, Ariz. Amazon and its rivals are increasingly requiring warehouse employees to get used to working with robots. The company now has more than 200,000 robotic vehicles it calls “drives” that are moving goods through its delivery-fulfillment centers around the U.S. (Associated Press)
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Guess who’s getting used to working with robots in their everyday lives? The very same warehouse workers once predicted to be losing their jobs to mechanical replacements.

But doing your job side by side with robots isn’t easy. According to their makers, the machines should take on the most mundane and physically strenuous tasks.

In reality, they’re also creating new forms of stress and strain in the form of injuries and the unease of working in close quarters with mobile half-ton devices that direct themselves.

“They weigh a lot,” Amazon.com worker Amanda Taillon said during the pre-Christmas rush at a company warehouse in Connecticut. Nearby, a fleet of six-foot-tall roving robot shelves zipped around behind a chain-link fence.

Taillon’s job is to enter a cage and tame Amazon’s wheeled warehouse robots for long enough to pick up a fallen toy or relieve a traffic jam. She straps on a light-up utility belt that works like a superhero’s force field, commanding the nearest robots to abruptly halt and the others to slow down or adjust their routes.

“When you’re out there, and you can hear them moving around, but you can’t see them, it’s like, ‘Where are they going to come from?’” she said. “It’s a little nerve-racking at first.”

Taillon said she’s gotten used to working with robots — something Amazon and its rivals are increasingly requiring warehouse employees to do.

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Amazon now has more than 200,000 robotic vehicles it calls “drives” that are moving goods through its delivery-fulfillment centers around the United States.

That’s double the number it had last year and up from 15,000 units in 2014.

Its rivals have taken notice, and many are adding their own robots in a race to speed up productivity and bring down costs.

Without these fast-moving pods, robotic arms and other forms of warehouse automation, retailers say they wouldn’t be able to fulfill consumer demand for packages that can land on doorsteps the day after you order them online.

But while fears that robots will replace human workers haven’t come to fruition, there are growing concerns that keeping up with the pace of the latest artificial intelligence technology is taking a toll on human workers’ health, safety and morale.

Warehouses powered by robotics and AI software are leading to human burnout by adding more work and upping the pressure on workers to speed up their performance, said Beth Gutelius, who studies urban economic development at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has interviewed warehouse operators around the country.

It’s not that workers aren’t getting trained on how to work with robots safely.

“The problem is it becomes very difficult to do so when the productivity standards are set so high,” she said.

Much of the boom in warehouse robotics has its roots in Amazon’s $775 million purchase of Massachusetts start-up Kiva Systems in 2012.

The tech giant re-branded it as Amazon Robotics and transformed it into an in-house laboratory that for seven years has been designing and building Amazon’s robot armada.

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Amazon’s Kiva purchase “set the tone for all the other retailers to stand up and pay attention,” said Jim Liefer, CEO of San Francisco start-up Kindred AI, which makes an artificially intelligent robotic arm that grasps and sorts items for retailers such as The Gap.

A rush of venture capital and private sector investment in warehouse robotics spiked to $1.5 billion a year in 2015 and has remained high ever since, said Rian Whitton, a robotics analyst at ABI Research.

Canadian e-commerce company Shopify spent $450 million this fall to buy Massachusetts-based start-up 6 River Systems, which makes an autonomous cart nicknamed Chuck that can follow workers around a warehouse.

Other mobile robot start-ups are partnering with delivery giants such as FedEx and DHL or retailers such as Walmart.

Amazon this year bought another warehouse robotics start-up, Colorado-based Canvas Technology, which builds wheeled robots guided by computer vision.

Such robots would be more fully autonomous than Amazon’s current fleet of caged-off vehicles, which have to follow bar codes and previously mapped routes within warehouses.

Amazon hasn’t disclosed how its safety record at robot-powered warehouses compares to those without. But company officials remain optimistic that Amazon workers are adapting to the new technology.

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