Since Amazon acquired Kiva Systems, a warehouse robotics company, in 2012, its efforts to automate working procedures have become well known. The retail and technology giant has launched a cashless Amazon Go unmanned store, adjusted its unmanned delivery plan, and deployed tens of thousands of robots to work in its logistics center.
Brad Porter, Amazons vice president of robotics technology, wrote in an e-mail to FastCompany: In logistics centers with automated robots, we can store an additional 40% of inventory in a faster and more efficient way and process customer orders quickly. He refers to Kiva-driven warehouse transport robots. Therefore, we can speed up delivery, reduce prices, and ultimately provide a better customer experience.
But Amazon is not the only giant to bring robotics into retail. Wal-Mart has also been adding robots to its warehouses and stores. A grocery distribution center in Shaft, California, will open in 2020, and their latest cargo transport robots can handle even the most perishable goods. In Salem, New Hampshire, Wal-Mart trolleys will soon be able to deliver online grocery orders from warehouses and hand-packaged to customers.
Other store robots include an automatic floor scrubbing robot that can clean the floors of 360 Wal-Mart stores by the end of January. There is also a robotic truck unloading system that categorizes new goods on the way to the shelf, tracking inventory and missing goods in stock.
Wal-Mart spokesman Lagen Dickens said: This robot can complete human workload in about two and a half hours. The job is to scan all the goods and record the location of those out of stock, where we need to get them, and the extent to which they are out of stock. Thats probably the case.
In many stores, automated pickup robots can also automatically complete online orders for customers without waiting for store employees to process them.
In addition, Kroger, a supermarket chain, announced last month that it would work with a British online retailer to build digital and automated warehouse facilities outside Cincinnati, while Bossa Nova, a San Francisco company, provided shelf-scanning robots for dozens of Wal-Mart stores. Martin Hitch, the companys chief business officer, said they were working on similar projects with at least five other unnamed retailers.
Sterling Hawkins, head of operations and risk relations at the Retail and Technology Promotion Center, said: This is the most exciting retail period in the past 100 years or so. This emerging automation technology, as well as artificial intelligence and robotics technology, can actually bring more benefits to the company technically and economically.
Will automation destroy or create more jobs?
Large retailers say automation technology can help them deliver goods to customers more quickly and fulfill their orders. Amazon, for example, says that these robots mean that warehouses can store more goods and complete customer orders faster. Similarly, Wal-Mart says its robots mean more customers can get their favorite products quickly.
But some critics fear that robots will inevitably take jobs from retailers, warehouses and maintenance workers.
In a statement last week, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said: There is no doubt that Wal-Marts shift to automated floor cleaning robots is not to better serve customers and workers. If the same technology is implemented in every Wal-Mart store, the latest robotics technology could destroy more than 5,000 maintenance jobs in the United States.
Based on this figure, the alliance assumes that these devices ultimately mean a reduction in the number of maintenance workers per store. Amazons efforts in store automation have been similarly criticized.
Marc Perrone, president of UFCW, said in an open letter last year: Amazon is clearly determined to increase its profit margin by automating its operations.
Recently, he expressed concern about reports in the Wall Street Journal that Amazon is testing its unmanned cash register system for large stores.
Amazon declined to comment on the report for FastCompany. But overall, Amazon says automation has helped it create more jobs, not replace human workers.
We create jobs while increasing automation, Porter wrote. The company says it has added more than 300,000 full-time employees since 2012. Automation enables us to provide faster delivery services at lower costs. This is a virtuous circle that enables our business to continue to grow and create more jobs.
Wal-Mart also said that the chains robots are focusing employees on tasks that machines cant do, such as cleaning areas that robots cant reach or adding goods to shelves where robots point out that they dont have enough stock. Moreover, he stressed that new automation tasks, such as scrubbing floors, checking online orders, or checking shelves for products that need to be replaced, are not the full responsibility of any job.
Wal-Mart says these are part of a larger role for employees.
In some cases, these robots can also automatically eliminate more unpleasant tasks, such as unloading trucks behind stores. This may improve jobs and reduce turnover. Robots also allow employees to spend more time directly helping customers.
Yes, theres robotic technology in the store. Its helping employees do their jobs, not replacing our employees. Wal-Mart is striving to provide a good working environment for its employees and a good shopping experience for its customers.
Stores are changing
Wal-Mart usually employs about 300 employees in its supermarket and about 90 employees in its smaller supermarket locations. According to a Reuters report in 2015, the store has fewer people per square foot per year than it did 10 years ago, and the store area per employee has increased from 407 square feet in 2005 to 547 square feet. At the time, Wal-Mart attributed the change to increased efficiency, including shelf packaging, motor equipment used to transport shopping carts, and the rise of self-checkout.
Dickens refused to speculate on what the future employment data might look like, saying that stores would continue to grow to meet changing customer needs.
Stores are changing, he said. Today is different from 10 years ago. I think it will look a little different in 10 years.
Jim Bessen, executive director of Boston Universitys Technology and Policy Research Program, said the new technology would allow employees to spend more time communicating with customers rather than losing their jobs. This is a common side effect, and people will share the same concerns when they hear police installing crime cameras and airlines turning to biometric registries. It may sound hard to believe, but its already happening in other industries: as bank customers move many transactions from the counter to ATM, bank employment actually increases, because banks can afford to open more branches and have fewer tellers at each counter.
The nature of the job has changed, so its not more marketing, he said. People will play a more important role in helping banks provide customers with products that are more profitable than cash deposits and withdrawals.
Michael Mandel, chief economic strategist at Progressive Policy Institute, said that so far, the shift to e-commerce has created more jobs, and logistics centers tend to work better than traditional retail stores. In a paper published last year, he wrote: We estimate that the number of jobs in logistics centers increased by 400,000 from December 2007 to June 2017, far exceeding the 140,000 decline in physical retail business.
Historically, we have seen that productivity gains are often associated with job creation, because you can do things you could not do before, he said. People are now very aware of this situation. People are now buying all kinds of things online, such as cat food, instead of going to stores.
Mandel said he was optimistic that automation would create more jobs even if retailers continued to automate. If the retail industry is cheaper to replace humans with robots and eventually cut jobs, that could mean lower distribution costs for manufacturers. This may lead to new business models, and product manufacturers will hire people to play new roles.
For Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institutes for Local Self-Relianc, a longtime commentator at Amazon and large chains, his focus is not just on the rise of automation, but on the challenges facing community businesses, small manufacturers and entrepreneurs. Under the price pressure of the retail giants, it is difficult for the local small retail enterprises to thrive.
I dont think we should continue to work in these terrible warehouses, Mitchell said. Im concerned about the pressure of high automation on start-ups.
Even if automation does create new jobs, it could be a difficult transition for some long-term retail workers. A McKinsey report on workplace automation released last December was very influential. It warns that while technological change often creates more work than they wipe out, it is essential to ensure that people receive adequate training to get them into these new careers quickly.
The investment and productivity growth brought about by automation can stimulate enough growth to ensure full employment, the report said. But this is only true if most workers who lose their original jobs find new jobs within a year. If re-employment is slow, the frictional unemployment rate may rise in the short term, and wages may face downward pressure.
According to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 3.4 million people currently work as retail cashiers. Erikka Knuti, UFCW communications director, believes it is not clear what kind of jobs these cashiers will turn to in most of the world of automated commerce.
These are all good jobs that can provide people with a better life, as well as ways to provide a better life for their families, she said. They dont all go to Silicon Valley to start coding, not everyone can work in a warehouse.
Source: Liable Editor of Netease Science and Technology Report: Yao Liwei_NT6056