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Robots aren’t done remodeling warehouses


By Patrick Sisson, The New York Times Company

When Digit spends an afternoon unloading boxes from a tractor-trailer in 100+ degree heat, co-workers never hear a complaint. Digit, a blue and white humanoid robot, was designed to handle difficult, menial and dangerous tasks in warehouses.

The robot’s movements, informed by years of birdwalking studies, include a slight sway in its frame when at rest, to dispel the uncomfortable stillness that bothers humans. He doesn’t speak either, because the voice recognition technology isn’t advanced enough yet.

“Instead of designing the entire warehouse around robots, we can now build robots that can operate on our terms, in our spaces, in our environments,” said Jonathan Hurst, CTO and Founder of Agility Robotics. , the society. behind Cipher.

Robotics and automation are not new to logistics; conveyor belts, scanners and other innovations have helped automate and accelerate the speed-obsessed industry for decades. But the pace of investment and change — fueled by the pandemic-era e-commerce boom, a tight labor market and a fragile supply chain — has taken off in recent years. Experts say robotics will change the way warehouses are operated and designed.

“It’s a golden era we’re entering,” said Tye Brady, chief technologist at Amazon Robotics. The e-commerce giant, which helped accelerate the industry’s shift to automation in 2012 with the acquisition of robotics company Kiva Systems, has deployed more than 500,000 robotic units, including Proteus, its first robot fully autonomous mobile.

Labor organizations have a different perspective. Technology can make jobs safer and more secure, but the industry is too focused on using it as a cost-cutting measure, said Sheheryar Kaoosji, executive director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, a nonprofit group in California. .

“He’s always wanted to reduce labor costs, and reducing human labor is something the industry has seen as a way to save money for decades,” he said. .

Adoption of robotics in warehouses will increase by 50% or more over the next five years, according to surveys conducted by the Material Handling Institute, an industry trade group. The goal is mechanical orchestration, in which a team of robots, driven by sophisticated software and artificial intelligence, can move boxes and products around in a seamless environment.

“I worry about owners who don’t,” said Erik Nieves, CEO of Plus One Robotics, which has partnered with Yaskawa America to bring robotic arms to a FedEx sorting facility in Memphis, Tennessee. “Even today, many warehouses are just racks, carts and clipboards. They just won’t be able to keep up.”

Billions are being invested by big players eager to stay on the cutting edge. Walmart, for example, recently announced a deal with Symbotic to bring its system of self-driving belts, pickers and vehicles to all of the retailer’s 42 major sorting facilities.

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