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Report: Amazon wants robots that can do the work of warehouse pickers

Report: Amazon wants robots that can do the work of warehouse pickers
[Photo: Flickr user Maryland GovPics]

By now, it’s well known that Amazon is always on the lookout for ways to cut costs. Over the last few years, as the e-commerce giant has grown into a true behemoth, the company has proven to shareholders its ability to provide returns. One way it does this is by investing in automation.

Amazon has implemented robots and other automating technologies in a variety of ways–especially in its warehouses. The company has tried to assuage fears of robots taking over human roles by saying that certain roles won’t be automated. One of those jobs is the “picker,” or someone who grabs items and places them in the areas to be shipped. But according to a new report in the Information, those jobs may no longer be safe. According to unnamed people with knowledge of the situation, Amazon is looking into robots that can do this picking action.

The company, in a statement to the original report, admitted that Amazon is always looking into new technologies to streamline the workflow, but that human employees are usually better at performing a variety of tasks that robots may not be able to do. Still, the spokesperson told the Information, “We need advanced technology and automation to meet customer demand—it’s just that simple.”

This may cause some worry. A few weeks ago, Amazon announced plans to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. For many warehouse workers, this meant they’d be given an instant wage. (Though, it should be mentioned, Amazon took away stock options and other benefits in exchange for this wage boost.) One thing workers don’t have is guaranteed hours, and if Amazon continues to invest in robots like these pickers, it’s likely that fewer hours will be allotted to workers.

The company maintains that a perfectly automated warehouse technology is far off. While other companies are also looking into similar warehouse robots, it remains to be seen how automated an entire large-scale company can become. But for workers looking to make ends meet by working a steady job, this sort of technology is frightening.

Update: Amazon has shared with me the full statement from Brad Porter, VP and DE of Amazon Robotics:

We regularly look at our operations and evaluate how we can bring technology to create new solutions for employees. When it comes to using robotic manipulation for item picking, while we’re encouraged by the work in the research community, the simple fact is the current state-of-the-art is not capable of handling the diversity of Amazon’s product selection. Humans are uniquely capable of handling the diversity of our assortment and have the added benefit that they notice things like a jug of laundry detergent that is leaking and can make sure we don’t ship that leaking jug to a customer.

We are both creating jobs and adding automation. Since the time we started introducing robotics at Amazon in 2012, we have added tens of thousands of robots to our fulfillment centers while also adding added over 300,000 jobs globally. Our teams work alongside robots and we are excited to continue increasing the technology we use at our sites while growing our global workforce.

We need advanced technology and automation to meet customer demand—it’s just that simple. The use of robotics, automation and technology in our fulfillment centers is enhancing our workplace and making jobs more efficient.

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