|Amazon Pushes Forward With Robots, Workers Find New Roles|
Amazon’s warehouses, which now employ more than 125,000 people across the United States, are being outfitted with the latest in robots and tech, but not at the expense of human jobs.
By NICK WINGFIELD
New York Times
SEPT. 10, 2017
FLORENCE, N.J. — Nissa Scott started working at the cavernous Amazon warehouse in southern New Jersey late last year, stacking plastic bins the size of small ottomans. It was not, she says, the most stimulating activity. And lifting the bins, which often weigh 25 pounds each, was also tiring over 10-hour shifts.
Now Ms. Scott, 21, watches her replacement — a giant, bright yellow mechanical arm — do the stacking.
Her new job at Amazon is to babysit several robots at a time, troubleshooting them when necessary and making sure they have bins to load. On a recent afternoon, a claw at end of the arm grabbed a bin off a conveyor belt and stacked it on another bin, forming neat columns on wooden pallets surrounding the robot. It was the first time Amazon had shown the arm, the latest generation of robots in use at its warehouses, to a reporter.
Nissa Scott, 21, watching over a robotic arm stacking containers filled with merchandise at an Amazon warehouse in Florence, N.J. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
“For me, it’s the most mentally challenging thing we have here,” Ms. Scott said of her new job. “It’s not repetitive.”
Perhaps no company embodies the anxieties and hopes around automation better than Amazon. Many people, including President Trump, blame the company for destroying traditional retail jobs by enticing people to shop online. At the same time, the company’s eye-popping growth has turned it into a hiring machine, with an unquenchable need for entry-level warehouse workers to satisfy customer orders.
Amazon’s global work force is three times larger than Microsoft’s and 18 times larger than Facebook’s, and last week, Amazon said it would open a second headquarters in North America with up to 50,000 new jobs.
The robots help enable the kind of efficiency gains that allow a customer to order a variety of products and have them delivered in a couple of days. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
Complicating the equation even more, Amazon is also on the forefront of automation, finding new ways of getting robots to do the work once handled by employees. In 2014, the company began rolling out robots to its warehouses using machines originally developed by Kiva Systems, a company Amazon bought for $775 million two years earlier and renamed Amazon Robotics. Amazon now has more than 100,000 robots in action around the world, and it has plans to add many more to the mix.
The robots make warehouse work less tedious and physically taxing, while also enabling the kinds of efficiency gains that let a customer order dental floss after breakfast and receive it before dinner.
“It’s certainly true that Amazon would not be able to operate at the costs they have and the costs they provide customers without this automation,” said Martin Ford, a futurist and author of “Rise of the Robots,” a book about automation. “Maybe we wouldn’t be getting two-day shipping.”
Human “pickers” followed instructions on computer screens, grabbing items off the shelves and putting them in plastic containers. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
The dynamics between people and machines play out on a daily basis on the floor of Amazon warehouses in places like Florence, N.J., and Kent, Wash. In Kent, the robots vaguely resemble giant beetles and scurry around with vertical shelves loaded with merchandise weighing up to 3,000 pounds on their backs. Hundreds of them move autonomously inside a large caged area, tailgating each other but not colliding.
On one edge of the cage, a group of human workers — the “stowers” — stuff products onto the shelves, replenishing their inventory. The robots whisk those shelves away and when a customer order arrives for products stored on their backs, they queue up at stations on another edge of the cage like cars waiting to go through a toll both.
There, human “pickers” follow instructions on computer screens, grabbing items off the shelves and putting them in plastic bins, which then disappear on conveyor belts destined for “packers,” people who put the products in cardboard boxes bound for customers.
Amazon began rolling out robots to its warehouses in 2014, using machines first developed by Kiva Systems, a company Amazon bought for $775 million two years earlier. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
Dave Clark, the top executive in charge of operations at Amazon, said the company wanted the machines to perform the most monotonous tasks, leaving people to do jobs that engage them mentally.
"It’s a new item each time,” Mr. Clark said. “You’re finding something, you’re inspecting things, you’re engaging your mind in a way that I think is important."
The robots also cut down on the walking required of workers, making Amazon pickers more efficient and less tired. The robots also allow Amazon to pack shelves together like cars in rush-hour traffic, because they no longer need aisle space for humans. The greater density of shelf space means more inventory under one roof, which means better selection for customers.
The company has more than 125,000 warehouse employees. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
The Amazon warehouse in Florence shows the latest example of the kinds of jobs machines can do better than people. Eight mechanical arms are in operation at the facility, a warehouse where large quantities of merchandise are broken down into smaller units and distributed to Amazon fulfillment centers across the country.
The arms go by the awkward name of robotic palletizers, but workers have given them a dash of personality, sticking signs on each one naming them after Stuart, Dave and other minion characters from the “Despicable Me” movies. Unlike the warehouse robots in Kent, which were based on the machines Amazon got through its Kiva acquisition, these arms come from an outside company.
Amazon began installing them late last year, not long after it opened the warehouse in Florence. The robot arm is configured to pick up only bins of a standard size, not objects of other dimensions. In a demonstration of future possibilities, Amazon showed a virtual reality simulation used to prototype new robot concepts, including an arm with a forklift attachment that moved pallets.
A robotic arm in Florence, N.J., grabbing bins filled with merchandise to form stacks on pallets bound for other Amazon warehouses. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
When Amazon installed the robots, some people who had stacked bins before, like Ms. Scott, took courses at the company to become robot operators. Many others moved to receiving stations, where they manually sort big boxes of merchandise into bins. No people were laid off when the robots were installed, and Amazon found new roles for the displaced workers, Mr. Clark said.
“The people didn’t go anywhere,” he said.
The question going forward is: What happens when the future generations of robots arrive?
For now, there are warehouse tasks — for example, picking individual items off shelves, with all their various shapes and sizes — where people outperform robots. Amazon has added 80,000 warehouse employees in the United States since adding the Kiva robots, for a total of more than 125,000 warehouse employees. And it says the warehouse hiring spree will continue.
Amazon said its warehouse hiring spree will continue. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
But start-ups and researchers are scrambling to overcome the many remaining technical obstacles. Amazon even sponsors an annual contest to encourage more innovation in the category.
Mr. Ford, the author, believes it is just a matter of time before the employment picture in Amazon’s warehouses changes.
“My assumption is this technology will eventually displace a lot of people in those warehouses,” Mr. Ford said. “I would not say that overnight huge numbers of jobs disappear. Maybe the first indication is they don’t get rid of those people but the pace of job creation slows down.”
Amazon’s Mr. Clark said history showed that automation increases productivity and, in some cases, demand from consumers, which ultimately creates more jobs. He said warehouse workers would continue to work in technologically rich environments.
“It’s a myth that automation destroys net job growth,” he said.
In the case of the Florence facility, it opened up the new opportunity for Ms. Scott.
At one point, one of the arms knocked over a tote, sending a dozen or so cone-shaped plastic coffee filters skidding across the ground. Ms. Scott hit a button that froze the arm so she could safely pick up the mess.
Then the arms started working again.
“The robot will work the same all day long,” said Edward Cohoon, who supervises Ms. Scott and other Amazon workers as they tend to individual robots. “Their stomachs don’t grumble.”
Correction: September 11, 2017
Earlier versions of the captions for the pictures of a robotic arm in Florence, N.J., and human “pickers” were reversed.
Follow Nick Wingfield on Twitter @nickwingfield.
A version of this article appears in print on September 11, 2017, on Page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Robots of Amazon