Amazon, the automation-loving e-retailer which earlier this month outlined its plan for a cashier-less retail store, says it now has 45,000 robots working across more than 20 of its order-fulfillment centers. That marks a 50 percent increase of its robot workforce from a year ago (when they were deployed at 13 fulfillment centers), to go along with a human workforce of some 200,000 full-time and seasonal staffers over this year’s holiday shopping season. (The robots mostly contribute manual labor, while people still handle the finer-skilled and thinking jobs.) As the Seattle Times points out, Amazon now has a larger army of robots than the Netherlands has people in its actual army, and as Geekwire adds, the ratio of overall robots to people at Amazon has increased by as much as 14 percent, based on the company’s full third-quarter employment figures.
As with the manufacturing sector, the ratio of robot to human workers in American warehouses will undoubtedly shift more and more toward the bots in the coming years, as automation technology continues to provide greater efficiency and cost savings to the companies that can afford to adopt it. A Deutsche Bank analysis over the summer estimated that Amazon, by installing the company’s exclusive floor-patrolling Kiva robots at a fulfillment center, reduces its expenses by $22 million (or 20 percent) per warehouse, and also increases the inventory capacity of Kiva-equipped facilities by a whopping 50 percent.
Meanwhile, other e-commerce giants have been following Amazon’s automation-centric lead, albeit with more limited gains, and new types of warehouse robots are being quickly developed and deployed, as Kim Bhasin and Patrick Clark explored last June for Bloomberg:
[The e-commerce robotics company Locus’s] minions are much smaller than their Kiva counterparts. A stand shoots up from the Locus robot’s circular base with a platform to place bins full of goods. A touch screen is mounted at chest-level, like a podium on wheels, so the bot can tell workers what it needs. Rather than haul around entire pods of merchandise, the Locus bots scurry to warehouse workers and prompt them with a touchscreen. Human workers, each in charge of a particular zone, retrieve the items and give them to the robots, which then move on to the next spot. Laborers won’t get exhausted from walking miles each day, and the warehouse isn’t limited by the A-to-B nature of conveyor belts. Perhaps it’s an example of humans and bots working in perfect harmony.
Fetch Robotics, based in San Jose, makes a warehouse robot that follows workers around, catching the items they pick off the shelves. Harvest Automation, based in Billerica, Mass., sells a similar version. There are also European companies that specialized in earlier generations of warehouse automation, often revolving around conveyor belts and systems that moved goods along track-mounted shuttles. While many of the new systems focus on moving stuff around, a whole generation of robots is trying to automate the picking process—grabbing items off shelves—through more dexterous methods. There’s Toru, a bot from German firm Magazino that can grab individual items, for example. And 6 River Systems, a Boston-based startup founded by some former Kiva executives, is currently running pilot programs for new, as-yet-undisclosed products.
And Bhasin and Clark stress that, along with warehouse and delivery drones, these are just the technologies that we know about, since companies like Amazon typically keep much of their future automation plans cards pretty close to the chest.
With human warehouse jobs being put increasingly at risk by these developments, it also becomes essential for employers to think about how they will adjust to this new reality, particularly when it comes to helping displaced workforces transition to other jobs, as our own Brian Kropp pointed out a few weeks ago.
Find that post, and all our extensive coverage of the rise and consequences of automation, here.