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.
Amazon, which accounted for 38% of robotics investment in the industry last year, announced a $1 billion industry innovation fund in April to support robotics companies like Agility. And grocer Kroger has opened five of the 20 planned warehouses equipped with Ocado’s automated system for packing and shipping fresh produce.
The seeds for the rise of warehouse robotics were sown during the 2008 recession, when automakers, which relied heavily on robotics, suffered a deep and prolonged recession. Many of today’s innovators have a background in the automotive industry and saw logistics as ripe for innovation.
But unlike assembly-line manufacturing, warehouses require a significant degree of flexibility. It’s only recently that systems like vision and artificial intelligence have become cheap enough and powerful enough to sort through the tens of thousands of different products passing through an e-commerce warehouse. This technological leap is part of a greater adoption of robotics: the industry has seen purchases increase by 28% from 2020 to 2021, according to the Association for Advancing Automation.
Today, the technology is becoming more affordable and seeping into the industry, beyond big players like Walmart and Amazon, said Rueben Scriven, senior analyst at Interact Analysis who covers warehouse automation. He predicts a 25% increase in investment in robotics and automation this year alone.
Real estate companies are also investing in robotics startups. For example, Prologis, an industrial giant with a global network of warehouses, has poured tens of millions of dollars into robotics companies through its Prologis Ventures fund.
“Netflix is the only company that can understand video streaming, and suddenly it didn’t,” said Zac Stewart Rogers, a Colorado State University professor who specializes in logistics and logistics. warehousing, which sees an emerging middle class of robotics users in industry. “Other companies will start to catch up with Amazon’s lead.”
There is increased demand for goods-to-person robots by companies like Fetch and Locus. These so-called cobots, which may look like Segways carrying garbage cans, move between workers throughout the facility. With the skyrocketing cost of raw materials like steel, these robots are becoming cheaper and faster to deploy than automated conveyor systems. Some companies have even introduced “robots as a service” business models to rent out these machines to warehouse operators.
Many industry analysts add that the increased interest in robots stems from a tight labor market due to high turnover and competitive wages in other fields. Automation is one lever companies could use to solve the problem.
Robots won’t replace short-term workers, Scriven said, but rather make them more efficient and productive. Humans will be the team leaders, commanding and maintaining teams of robots.
And robots can help with recruiting, said William O’Donnell, chief executive of Prologis Ventures.
“It will improve the quality of experience for the workforce because instead of doing a manual thing by rote, individuals will learn how to manage the robot to keep it operational,” he said. “It will create a more sophisticated career path and skill set.”
But workers haven’t necessarily found significant benefits from advances in robotics, said Kaoosji, the workers’ advocate. Investment in new technologies will need to involve workforce participation to ensure that the evolution of jobs does not leave out long-tenured workers.
Working at the speed of machines will overwhelm employees, he said. “It’s basically the treadmill problem, like Lucy Ricardo with the chocolates in ‘I Love Lucy,'” he said. “If your machines are accelerating the pace of work, you must conform to what the machine decides as your pace of work.”
Warehouse builders and operators are already asking for advice on how to optimize new spaces for the next generation of robotics, said James Rock, CEO of Seegrid, which creates autonomous mobile robots that traverse warehouse floors.
He thinks “powered off” warehouses – run by robots around the clock without the need for air conditioning or lighting suitable for human needs – will arrive in three or four years. Too many people in the industry have seen the benefits of increasing efficiency and reducing costs and workplace injuries, he said.
It’s unclear to what extent robotics efficiencies will affect overall demand for warehouse space. Symbotic, for example, claims it can deliver the same quantity as a traditional warehouse in half the space. A human and a robot tend to occupy similar space on the warehouse floor, but only one needs a break room.
A bigger challenge is the aging of spaces in the industry: a third of warehouses are over 50 years old, 70% of which were built before the 21st century, according to a report by real estate services company Newmark. Owners generally do not make these investments themselves; tenants and large retailers tend to fund robotics and automation improvements.
Warehouses will need to be wired for vastly increased power requirements and charging stations, as well as more sophisticated wireless and 5G networks to allow the fleet of machines to communicate. Newmark found that US industrial sector energy consumption will grow more than twice as fast as any other real estate sector over the next few decades.
“We’re building much of the same building,” said Steve Kros, regional partner at Transwestern, a developer specializing in warehouses. “A generic, vanilla building that can accommodate the widest possible range of tenants. But now they use two or three times the power of previous generations of warehouses. »
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.