Tencent Technology News, according to foreign media reports, when Amazon announced last week that it would raise the minimum wage of 250,000 employees worldwide to $15 an hour, the company avoided talking about a related but sensitive topic: the machine will When will you replace most of the employees who work in the Amazon warehousing center?
Amazon has used robots to handle the warehouse center, which is some of the work in the fulfillment center, but the company has played down the risk of robots replacing the items picked up from the shelves and placed in cartons for packaging and shipping. . However, according to three people who know the job, Amazon is developing robots that will one day be able to handle the work of sorters. One person who witnessed the development of robots said that a research project at Amazon involved visually identifying items coming down the conveyor belt and picking them up with a compressed air vacuum gripper and then moving them from the conveyor belt to the table or shelf. Robot.
Amazon is just one of many companies looking to create machines that can be sorted as efficiently as humans. This is an extremely difficult engineering challenge, and other online retailers, such as Jingdong of China, have been touting the development of sorting robots as part of a broader effort to develop a fully automated e-commerce fulfillment center. Academic researchers and startups such as Kindred Systems, RightHand Robotics, and Soft Robotics are selling products that use vacuum drives and other types of grippers to automate some or all of the work of human sorters.
Amazon said that the sorting robot is not yet ready to handle items of various shapes, weights and sizes at the Amazon fulfillment center. Brad Porter, vice president of Amazon Robotics, Amazon.com, said in an e-mailed statement that human sorters are also better at finding problems, such as a can of washing powder before being shipped to customers. Broken.
“We regularly review our operations and assess how we can create new solutions for our employees through technology,” Porter said. “When it comes to the use of robotic operations for item sorting, although we are encouraged by the work of the research community, the simple fact is that the current state of the art cannot handle the diversity of Amazon product selection. ”
Like other people who have a more optimistic view of automation, Amazon does not agree with the doomsday that predicts that machines will eliminate large numbers of jobs. Amazon's fulfillment center has deployed thousands of robots, most of which are moving cartons to the station's motorized carts, which are then unloaded from the cart by human sorters. Amazon believes that these robots do not replace human workers, but help the latter improve their efficiency.
Amazon said that since the use of robots in the fulfillment center six years ago, the company has employed more than 300,000 people worldwide, and the company plans to continue to increase the number of employees and expand automation in the future. Amazon has more than 185 fulfillment centers around the world, and more than 25 of them have robots, accounting for about 14%.
“We need advanced technology and automation to meet customer needs – this is the case,” Porter said in an email.
Today's industrial robots are great for repetitive work, but in an environment like the Amazon Warehousing Center, machine learning algorithms must be greatly improved so that machines can identify that they need to pick the right items from a range of objects. These obstacles will eventually be overcome, and academic researchers and engineers have no doubt about this. This may have a profound impact on employment as online commerce continues to devour more retail business.
In recent years, although the Amazon warehousing center has been criticized for its hard work and low salary, the number of in-service positions has increased significantly. For Amazon, the rapid growth in sales coupled with low unemployment has made it increasingly difficult for its warehouses to find employees, which is also considered to be the main reason why the company decided to raise the minimum wage for its employees.
Increasing employee productivity is another reason why Amazon is investing heavily in the robotics arena. After spending $775 million in 2012 to acquire robotic startup Kiva Systems, Amazon began to work in the robotics arena. Stacy Mitchell, who often criticizes Amazon's non-profit advocacy group, the local self-reliant association's contact chairman, Stacy Mitchell, believes the association has felt the impact of the Amazon warehouse's automation efforts.
“We have seen that the number of workers they need to complete an order has decreased a lot compared to sales, compared to sales,” Mitchell said. “So, we have seen the impact of increased automation on Amazon’s employment. But all of this is overshadowed by the fact that Amazon is growing and hiring a large number of employees. ”
Amazon has previously tried to encourage the innovation of sorting robots through the annual competition. In this competition, contestants compete to develop robots to complete tasks such as sorting items and placing them on shelves. Amazon awarded a prize of $270,000 to the winner of the 2017 Robotics Challenge. Most of the contestants come from academia, not start-ups. Amazon did not host the event this year. According to sources close to Amazon, on the contrary, through the Amazon Research Awards program, the company has shifted its focus to funding academia proposals.
At the same time, China's online retailer Jingdong announced plans to hold its own sorting challenge in Tianjin in December. According to reports, the company has a fully automated warehouse in Shanghai managed by a small number of employees. The job of employees is to monitor the machines and make sure they work.
Technical experts have different opinions on how long it takes for the e-commerce fulfillment center to fully automate. Jeff Mahler, chief executive of the recent robotic startup Ambidextrous Laboratories, separated from the University of California at Berkeley, said that in the near future, part of the fulfillment center's work could be automated, such as on the shelves. product. But humans can still play a role for a while, because it is difficult for robots to grab certain objects due to hardware limitations. For example, current robots have a hard time catching things that are hard to see, such as water bottles.
More radical prediction
Start-ups that have been established for a longer period of time are more optimistic that sorting robots will be widely deployed faster. According to Vince Martinelli, head of product and marketing at RightHand Robotics, a robotic startup that sells robotic arms to retail, pharmaceutical and grocery companies, the company's products can handle more than 1,000 pieces per hour. Hundreds of thousands of products. “Once the system is configured to perform sorting and placement functions, normal operations do not require manual intervention,” Martinelli said.
Another startup, Kindred Systems, initially needed humans to help train robots to master objects and use the data from these exercises to improve the accuracy of the software. The company's CEO Jim · Jim Liefer said the company's robots are gradually eliminating the need for human help. Lev said that at the end of 2017, the company's robots were operated autonomously 20% of the time, and now the data has been raised to 85%.
A venture capitalist supporting a robotics company predicts that Amazon may deploy its own sorting robot in its warehouse instead of a robot developed by a startup. This is because companies like Amazon often have to make major changes to the structure of the warehouse in order to use the new robots, making it difficult for them to put the robot into existing processes without extensive customization.
The futurist and author of many books on robot automation topics, Martin · Martin Ford, has a more positive estimate of the speed of automation. Ford predicts that Amazon will replace many human sorters with automated robots within five years. He said that the disappearance of these jobs will have an ominous economic impact, because the current national unemployment rate of 3.9% in the United States is largely due to the fact that some companies have created low-income service jobs, such as the sorting of e-commerce fulfillment centers. member.
Ford said that if there are not enough people with jobs and income to buy consumer goods, automated productivity growth may be offset. He said: "We must solve the problem of getting rid of humans and replacing them with machines. ”(Compile / Ming Xuan)