While the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos dreams of drones carrying out deliveries, the online giant has revealed that a horde of robots is already in action in 10 of its US warehouses.
Orange, oblong and squat, the wheeled robots roll beneath shelves of goods, which they then lift and ferry around the warehouse, navigating by barcodes on the floor. Amazon is employing more than 15,000 of the robots, each of which weighs 320lbs and is able to carry as much as 750lbs, at 10 of its 109 global “fulfillment centers”.
The robots could be harbingers of a new era, vastly simplifying the jobs of Amazon’s human workers and coming in particularly handy during the hectic holiday shopping season. In unequipped warehouses, employees must trek through miles of stacks to shelve and pick goods. In warehouses with robots, machines now bring those goods to stations where people pack boxes for storage or shipping.
Amazon’s senior vice president for operations, Dave Clark, told reporters the robots cut one warehouse’s operating costs by 20%. He explained that with the robots, shelves can be stacked closer together and warehouses can hold more of the books, specialty keyboards, hot sauces, patio furniture and assorted esoterica that Amazon ships in massive quantities around the world.
Because “the majority of the aisles disappear”, as Clark put it, the robots significantly shorten the time it takes to deliver packages. In some instances, he said, Amazon can ship packages in as little as 13 minutes from a customer’s order. It previously took more than an hour for an employee to compete such a task alone, he said.
“It’s always faster to have inventory in one place … we’re dramatically more efficient than we were,” Clark said. A robot-boosted warehouse can ship as many as 700,000 items a day during peak periods.
In 2012, Amazon bought the robotics company Kiva Systems for $775m, and began installing the robots and necessary equipment in California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey and Washington. Company filings made in June 2013 estimated that at one Florida warehouse, installation cost about $46m. Clark said the acquisition was “certainly proving out that it’s justified itself”.
The company also hopes to prevent the mistakes of the 2013 shopping season, when winter storms and a surge of orders swamped Amazon’s warehouses and delayed deliveries.
Clark insisted the machines would not threaten jobs at Amazon, which plans to hire 80,000 short-term employees for the holiday season. He told reporters increased efficiency meant growth, which increased hiring, and said he saw a “virtuous cycle”: “I see that cycle continuing for a long time … we continue to add employees, and no employee has been negatively impacted by Kiva coming on board.”
Some fulfillment center employees have complained of a brutal pace, which Kiva bots could mitigate substantially. In 2011, for instance, workers at a Pennsylvania warehouse described debilitating heat and distances, saying the company kept ambulances outside for employees who suffered heat stroke, exhaustion or collapse. (Amazon has since installed air conditioning.)
Critics also say mandatory overtime and temporary employment perpetuate the ills of long-term unemployment. Writing for the Guardian, former worker Nichole Gracely accused the company and its temp agency contractors of offering ruthless terms. But while labor disputes have increased in recent years, they have so far failed to produce results.
Robots could ease such pressures – or they could displace some jobs entirely. Nearly 2,000 artificial intelligence and economics experts agreed that machines will continue to displace work, but they were split as to whether this means more or fewer jobs, according to a report by Pew Research.
About 52% thought automation will create more jobs than it displaces – and a new economic boom will value “uniquely human capabilities”. The remaining 48% foresaw a future with growing unemployment and inequality, as only the most wealthy and educated people retain control over economic levers.
Similarly, an Oxford University study found that 47% of the US labor market is at risk of displacement by machines.