A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Nov 30, 2021

Why Robots Can't Immediately Fill the Logistics Worker Shortage

They are not yet sensitive or 'intelligent' enough to do many of the tasks that human workers in warehouses can do. 

Nor does it appear that they will have those capabilities in the near future. JL 

Thomas Clear reports in his blog:
 

There are very few deployments that use real AI, such as robots that infer how to figure out unfamiliar objects. For now, robots can select a limited range of items from bins and conveyors and move around in buildings, but they can’t intervene with people with complex operations and fail when faced with problems. Operations such as picking and packing products still require human dexterity and intelligence, and Amazon says it will hire more than 150,000 seasonal workers to handle the surge in orders.

AI has great potential to make robots much more sophisticated. Instead of blindly executing routines, AI-enabled machines can recognize and learn what is in front of them and try to respond intelligently. One day, intelligent robots may be able to intuitively pick up unfamiliar objects and solve problems without human help.

Especially in warehouses, we see an unprecedented increase in automation, says Matt Bean, an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is studying the adoption and use of advanced robots. According to recent data from the International Federation of Robotics, global sales of “professional service robots” increased by 41% in 2020, while the money spent in that category increased by 14%. This means that technology is steadily getting cheaper. According to the Association for Advancing Automation, sales of robotic arms alone in the United States increased 37% year-on-year in the first nine months of 2021, and warehousing deliveries are now comparable to car manufacturing.

 

But Bean has also existed for decades, with most of this increase following repetitive actions without adaptation, such as simple sorting systems and industrial robots like Amazon’s current fleet.

According to Beane, there are very few deployments that use real AI, such as robots that infer how to figure out unfamiliar objects. For now, robots can select a limited range of items from bins and conveyors and move around in buildings, but they can’t intervene with people with complex operations and fail when faced with problems.

“No one has lost their job because of an AI-enabled robot,” he says. “It’s not that it’s not happening, but it’s very rare and too experimental.”

 

Amazon’s competitors are rushing to adopt more automation to catch up, and investors are investing heavily in startups working on warehouse robots. For example, Berkshire Gray, Massachusetts, sells custom robot automation to many retailers and fulfillment companies, raising a total of $ 413 million before it was released under the SPAC agreement in February this year. bottom. Investing in warehouse robotics increased 57% in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, according to a PitchBook report.

It’s unclear how the use of traditional robots affected the workforce at Amazon and elsewhere. Operations such as picking and packing products still require human dexterity and intelligence, and Amazon says it will hire more than 150,000 seasonal workers to handle the surge in orders. Again, without robots, the company might have needed more workers.

More robots may help fill the labor shortage in the short term, but ultimately it can mean the elimination of certain jobs. Several studies have shown that the adoption of robotics throughout the US economy since 1990 has resulted in fewer jobs and lower wages.

Automation Nation

Even if some of competitors shy away from the most attractive robots, Amazon isn’t the only one to adopt automation for classifying packages and products.

Last November, Wal-Mart decided to stop using robots roaming stores that count shelf inventory. However, in July of this year, retailers advertised a packaging processing project that included robot automation developed in collaboration with a company called Symbotic. The developed system includes a custom machine that removes the boxes from the pallets before sorting and routing the boxes at Wal-Mart’s facility. This system replaces some human effort, but requires only limited mechanical intelligence.

Robots don’t quickly fill the warehouse worker gap


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