Amazon's Robots In Action: The Good and the Bad
Tue, April 20, 2021

Amazon's Robots In Action: The Good and the Bad

In 2012, Amazon spent $775 million to acquire a young robotics company called Kiva Systems, enabling it to own a new breed of mobile robots / Photo by: Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons

 

When the tech industry became a subject in the 2020 Democratic presidential debates, the most important topic was not about breaking up the tech giants, said Jason Del Rey of Vox, an American news and opinions website. Rather, it was about the automation of jobs and its impacts on the US labor force. Amazon was at the center of this debate as it is known to employ hundreds of thousands of workers in its warehouse as well as its investments in robots and other automation technology. The latter signifies that it could be a large job eliminator.

In 2012, Amazon spent $775 million to acquire a young robotics company called Kiva Systems, enabling it to own a new breed of mobile robots. These robots carry shelves of products from one worker to another and scan barcodes on the ground for directions. It also allowed the e-commerce giant to set the stage for a potential future where its people are employed to maintain and fix the robots.  

 

The Beauty of Robots

It’s true that there are stories of Amazon warehouse workers walking 10 to 20 miles a day on concrete floors. But in newer warehouses, walking has been eliminated. Marc Wulfraat, founder and president of the supply chain consultancy MWPVL International, stated, “Walking 12 miles a day on a concrete floor to pick these orders...If you’re not 20 years old, you’re a broken person at the end of the week.” 

What Wulfraat was referring to are the “stowers.” Stowers in older warehouses have to walk up and down aisles while pushing a cart filled with products. The products are placed randomly on shelves and are scanned using a handheld device to indicate their location in a system. 

With robots, they are responsible for carrying empty shelving units called pods to the workstations of stowers. The stowers will then take the products and place them into an “open shelf space inside the shelving pods.” The stower presses a button when the pod is full, sending it to the workstation of a “picker.” The picker will get the item from the robots’ shelving units, making the process more efficient and less exhausting. 

Wulfraat noted that having a rubber mat is three times more productive than walking down aisles. It is also more humane on the employees who work in Amazon’s fulfillment centers, he added. 

The Ugly Side of Robots

Unfortunately, the said process is also more prone to wear and tear “due to repetitive motion and working faster at lifting and handling products,” Wulfraat said. As more warehouse tasks become automated, expectations imposed on human workers are much higher too. The robots raised the average picker’s productivity from around 100 items per hour to around 300 or 400, although the numbers vary across teams and facilities, reported Noam Scheiber of New York City-based newspaper The New York Times. 

An Amazon spokesperson did not comment on the quota, but the firm said it provides coaching to employees struggling to meet those targets. These goals entail that employees are allowed “just a handful of seconds between each product task,” which is made more complicated by the 8-foot-tall shelving units that the robots carry, Wulfraat explained. Therefore, workers need to use a stepladder to ascend to either place or retrieve products from the top row. 

He added that workers should stow lightweight products at the top or bottom of the pod, while heavier ones are placed between the robot’s knees and chest. However, it’s not possible for workers to adhere to this as the work is fast-paced, so they take safety and ergonomic shortcuts out of the picture. Such shortcuts mean that pickers on the receiving end are more likely to carry heavier-than-designed products down the stepladder, making them more susceptible to injury, Wulfraat said. 

An investigation conducted by the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal Group found that the rate of injuries at Amazon’s warehouses are higher than those in non-robotic facilities, wrote Will Evans of The Atlantic, an American magazine. After the firm launched its robots five years ago in California, the serious-injury rate skyrocketed from 2.9 per 100 employees in 2015 to 11.3 in 2018. The Amazon spokesperson said the company is aggressive with regard to documenting injuries, arguing that its injury rates may be higher than industry norms.  

The robots raised the average picker’s productivity from around 100 items per hour to around 300 or 400, although the numbers vary across teams and facilities / Photo by: Álvaro Ibáñez via Wikimedia Commons

 

What’s Next? 

Amazon introduced new mobile robots similar to the Kiva ones to transport packages inside sorting centers, where packaged customer orders are segregated by geographical location. It is also experimenting with giant robotic arms to place the packages on the mobile robots. Interestingly, Amazon plans to “upskill” 100,000 of its US employees and warehouse workers. A spokesperson said that it is the firm’s responsibility to help workers learn new technical skills to make them more employable in better-paying jobs. 

Amazon’s robots make processes faster and more efficient. But it also means there is increased pressure for workers to meet the required quota. As day-to-day operations become more automated, the firm’s employees must be trained to remain competitive in the job market.