Disgruntled Amazon Workers About To Be Replaced By Fleet Of Robots

Amazon, which announced a $15 minimum wage bump for 250,000 employees last week, is developing a fleet of "picking" robots to staff its warehouses, known as fulfillment centers, according to The Informationciting three people with knowledge of the work. 

Robot picker designed by Kindred Systems

Warehouse pickers grab items from shelves and put them into bins before they are prepped and shipped. The new robots will be able to visually identify items as they speed down a conveyor belt, then pick them up with a compressed-air vacuum gripper before moving them onto a table or shelf - said an employee who witnessed the robot in action

That said, our future robot overlords aren't quite ready for prime time. 

For its part, Amazon says picking robots aren’t yet ready to handle the huge variety of items in Amazon fulfillment centers, with their different shapes, weights and sizes. In an emailed statement, Brad Porter, vice president and distinguished engineer at Amazon Robotics, said human pickers are also much better at spotting problems such as a leaking jug of laundry detergent before it is shipped to a customer.  

We regularly look at our operations and evaluate how we can bring technology to create new solutions for employees,” said Mr. Porter. “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.” -The Information

Amazon began using automation in its fulfillment centers six years ago. During the same period, they have hired over 300,000 employees worldwide. Of the company's 185 fulfillment centers, over 25 of them, or around 14%, utilize robots. 

"We need advanced technology and automation to meet customer demand—it’s just that simple," says Porter. 

Opportunity costs

In recent years, strong growth in warehouse jobs has been accompanied by headlines criticizing various companies for low pay and disgruntled employees. Thanks to low unemployment, Amazon has found it increasingly difficult to attract workers - hence the wage increases. All of this means a more expensive workforce, which is a major reason for the push to replace humans with robots. 

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