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Video Tip: Robots and Humans Learning to Work Together in Warehouses

April 18, 2017

It was Amazon that drove America’s warehouse operators into the robot business, writes Businessweek (April 5-12, 2017). Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva (as we discussed in several earlier blogs) set off an arms race among robot makers and shippers across the U.S. who scurried to keep up with the e-commerce giant. For decades, warehouse operators were focused on the task of loading pallets and shipping them to retailers, who broke up the shipments and routed them to retail locations. Fulfilling online orders, on the other hand, requires shippers to pack boxes with a diverse set of individual items and route them on to customers’ homes.

That shift has given way to what people in the business call collaborative robotics, in which a human warehouse worker toils alongside an autonomous machine.

At the Quiet Logistics warehouse shown in this 1.5 minute video, the robots shorten the distance a warehouse worker travels on a typical day from 14 miles to less than 5 miles. The robots, meanwhile, park themselves directly in front of the shelf that the worker is supposed to pick from, decreasing the risk the human will pick the wrong item. That makes the job easier, and is appealing to employees.

What that means for warehouse humans is an open question. There are almost 1 million people working in the industry recently, up 44% over the past 10 years. The rise of e-commerce has created a need for more hands to pick items and pack boxes. Amazon’s rapid shipping times have taught customers to expect goods on their doorstep in 2 days or less, fueling a warehouse boom as retailers scramble to amass distribution hubs closer to their shoppers.

Logistics firms can have a hard time hiring enough people, particularly during peak shopping seasons. Adding robots should ease some of the seasonal shortages, and may make the work less physically demanding.

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