A new generation of artificial intelligence robots is taking over warehouses


This is the expertise of the latest generation of robotics companies such as Covariant and Osaro, and this technology will not be commercially viable until the end of 2019. Currently, such robots are best at simple manipulation tasks, such as picking up objects and putting them in boxes, but the two startups are already working with customers to develop more complex motion sequences, including automatic bag filling, which requires robots Handling of wrinkled, fragile or translucent materials. Within a few years, any task that previously required manual completion can be partially or fully automated.

Some companies have already begun to redesign their warehouses to make better use of these new features. For example, Knapp is changing its floor layout and the way it transports goods to consider which types of workers (robots or humans) are better at handling different products. For objects that still trip the robot, such as a bag of marbles or delicate pottery, the central routing algorithm sends them to a workstation equipped with a manual picker. More common items, such as household items and school supplies, will be delivered to the station where the robot is located.

Derik Pridmore, co-founder and CEO of Osaro, predicts that in industries such as fashion, fully automated warehouses may be online within two years because robots can handle clothing relatively easily.

This does not mean that all warehouses will be automated soon. According to Michael Chui, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute who studies the impact of information technology on the economy, there are millions of such people around the world. “Renovating all these facilities cannot be accomplished overnight,” he said.

One of the first robotic arms to support covariance driven by Knapp in a warehouse in Berlin, Germany.

Nevertheless, the latest automation push has raised questions about the impact on work and workers.

The previous wave of automation has provided researchers with more data about expectations. A recent study Companies that analyzed the impact of automation at the company level for the first time found that the companies that were the first to adopt robots in their industries became more competitive and grew faster, which led them to hire more workers. “Any unemployment comes from companies that have not adopted robots,” said Lynn Wu, a Wharton School professor and co-author of the paper. “They lost their competitiveness and then laid off workers.”

But as Amazon and FedEx employees have already seen, human jobs will be different. Roles such as boxes and bags will be replaced, and new roles will emerge-some are directly related to the maintenance and supervision of robots, while others are derived from the second-order effect of fulfilling more orders, which will require expanded logistics and delivery operations. In other words, the middle-skilled workforce will disappear, replaced by low-skilled and high-skilled jobs, Wu said: “We are breaking the career ladder and hollowing out the middle.”

But experts say that instead of trying to stop the automation trend, it is better to focus on mitigating the transition by helping employees regain their skills and create new career development opportunities. “Due to aging, the labor force in many countries in the world has been declining,” Cui said. “Over the past 50 years, half of our economic growth has come from the work of more people, and this situation will disappear. Therefore, it is imperative to increase productivity, and these technologies can help.

“We also just need to make sure that workers can share benefits.”


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