Amazon deploys 10,000 robot workers, a year after Obama’s famous Amazon jobs speech
- By David Cardinal on May 30, 2014 at 1:00 pm
It is clear that no sense of irony is needed to be successful in politics. If it was, then President Obama’s team might have thought more deeply about their choice of an Amazon warehouse as a showcase for one of his key speeches about jobs in the United States. Leaving aside whether warehouse jobs are great jobs or not, no company has been more aggressive as Amazon when it comes to eliminating human labor in the supply chain. When we first covered Amazon’s acquisition of warehouse-robotics company Kiva for $775 million in 2012, Amazon bragged of having 1,000 robots in its warehouses. Now CEO Bezos has said the number will be closer to 10,000 by the end of this year. Amazon claims that current employees won’t be sacked because of the additional 9,000 robots, but obviously the robots are doing a lot of work that would otherwise have required additional human employees.
Watching videos of the step-stool-shaped orange bots race around the warehouse floor, it’s easy to see that they are faster and more efficient than humans trying to do the same job. By realizing that making the shelves come to the pickers instead of the pickers go to the shelves, Kiva made it possible to deploy relatively simple robots to automate a big part of pick-and-pack operations. The actual packing of products into boxes is still done by hand, but specific products are pointed to by a computer using a small laser, so the human packer is unlikely to make a mistake. Big data crunching going on in the background makes thesystem even more efficient than a traditional warehouse. The robots are guided to shelves that are nearest them, and frequently-used shelves are put back near the packing station. Since that process is dynamic, the warehouse reconfigures itself based on seasonal demand. For example, before the Christmas rush, toys and ornaments will be stored near the packing station, while in the summer it might be sports and camping equipment.
One other cost savings with the semi-automated system is a lower utilities bill. Amazon has been criticized before for sub-standard working conditions in its warehouses. Well, the robots don’t care and don’t complain. Amazon only needs to heat and cool the small area where the packers are doing their job. The rest of the warehouse can stay dark and the temperature can be allowed to drift across a much wider range than if humans were spending an entire shift there. This attention to detail in its operational efficiencies is a big piece of why Amazon can deliver a huge range of products to your door faster and more cheaply than any other company on the planet. It is also why it generates nearly three times the revenue per employee of retailers Walmartand Safeway. That’s good for its customers, and its shareholders, but doesn’t bode well for the job market for unskilled and semi-skilled workers whose tasks are ones that can be done with some clever innovation and a pack of tireless robots. [Read: US military begins research into moral, ethical robots, to stave off Skynet-like apocalypse.]
Google and Foxconn working on displacing factory workers with robots
The world’s largest manufacturing company, Foxconn, is also investing very heavily in robots. The first 10,000 of its “Foxbots” were deployed around the same time Amazon bought Kiva, and Foxconn has been reported to be working closely with Google’s new robotics effort to deploy many times that number of robots in its factories that currently employ over a million people. Here too, Foxconn has often been criticized for poor working conditions, stressful hours, and low pay, but the answer may be less jobs instead of better jobs. Foxconn has said that some of its workers will get new, better jobs as technicians or engineers, but certainly not most of those displaced. As always with advanced technology, you sometimes need to be careful what you wish for.