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Amazon has many distribution centers in the United States, indicating an industrial revolution. The centers are like dizzying hives of activity, with humans working in meticulously orchestrated coordination with robots (Knight, Will). Aside from demonstrating the company's exceptional operational efficiencies, the automation system often points at how, in the future, robotics can continue to assist human employees with some basic tasks that are actually performed manually. The magnitude of such improvements, as well as how rapidly they occur, may have a direct impact on the job market. Amazon warehouse has a storage space at the center which is occupied with square shelves that are packed with numerous products from the company's inventory.
In the early generations of the fulfillment centers, workers used to roam the shelves looking for products needed to complete every order. Things have immensely changed, and today the shelves can quickly glide themselves across the floor carried by footstool-sized robots. The robots can reorganize the shelves in perfectly packed rows and bring them to human workers in a choreographed dance. The workers then retrieve products from them for packaging or stack those shelves with new goods.
These robots allow for packing more products in even tight spaces. Furthermore, stacking and picking is more efficient through the automatic movements of empty shelves to packers or taking the right products to pickers. This continuous process is very efficient compared to having human workers walking around to do the picking and packing. It is an excellent example of combining automation with human labor to improve productivity and cut down on labor costs. It is one of the technological improvements that have massively contributed to the reduction in lead times on orders. Amazon customers get their deliveries as fast as possible, thanks to the robotic system in its warehouse.
Many employees working in Amazon's warehouse at Robbinsville have commended the robots' efficient performance (Knight, Will). However, they have also mentioned about the robots' occasional malfunctioning that slows down workers. Some of them confess that they would prefer to walk around the warehouse once in a while. Such a confession implies that workers are not only unhappy with occasional malfunctioning of the robotic shelves but also the boredom that accompanies such a technological revolution. Although the technology has reduced workers' movements around the warehouse to pick or pack goods, the human workforce is slowly turned into robots with the long duration of staying in one position to pick and pack goods.
For a long time, industrial robots were limited to performing exceedingly repetitive and precise tasks and were not coordinated with human workers. The invention of computer chips, sensors, algorithms, and actuators, robots have improved in performance, become safer and cheaper with the ability to learn and perform tasks efficiently.
The robots used at Amazon are developed by Kiva Systems which Amazon acquired in 2012. The central control for the robots is from a central computer, and they use markers to navigate on the ground. The company has not yet stopped at this level, but it is still exploring how to automate the shelf picking tasks that are currently carried out by human workers. Despite the advancements made so far, the robots display some incapacity to perform tasks that need improvisation or manipulation. This is why it has been useful to devise a collaboration between them and humans to increase productivity. Some manufacturing technologists argue that it is natural to harness computing power to increase the cooperation of robots. Those who stand with this perspective base on the fact that it is cheap to distribute them to factories and integrate them with available manual processes and human workers.
Amazon's warehouse is vast and spacious with miles of conveyor belts that move a continuous stream of plastic boxes that contain orders of customers. This symphony of fulfillment is controlled by a computer. It is used to keep track of all items in the warehouse, with the objective of getting stuff to customers quickly. Orange robots fetch customers' orders online. When they find the storage unit of a product, they lift it up after gliding underneath and deliver it to human workers for picking.
Whereas the warehouse at Amazon is designed mainly around the robots, other companies look forward to developing robots that can work in a regular warehouse (Bergvall-Kåreborn, Birgitta, and Debra Howcroft). For example, a California based Fetch Robotics is on the verge of developing a robot that can retrieve goods from the shelves of a warehouse which was not designed to use robots in its operations. It is likely that the robots at Amazon are the first of a collaborative kind. Organizations must be experimenting on how to tailor them to fit the corporation's operations. This will lead to wide range of this type of robots.
Besides the robotic shelves, there are people working collaboratively with the automatic system across the warehouse. Goods flow into the warehouse at a controlled pace using a computer system to track their arrival and dispatch. The process begins with sophisticated vision stems that identify goods after unpacking. On the opposite side of the warehouse, workers do the packing of the products into boxes to prepare them for shipping with the assistance of the company's central computer systems.
After retrieving items from store shelves, they are identified automatically and sorted into batches meant for individual customers. The system is designed to measure the accurate dimensions of every product and automatically allocate it the right box as well as the right length of packing tape. Before the goods are sent to various trucks for dispatch, boxes are weighed to ensure there are no mistakes made during packing.
The use of robots has made tasks take a shorter time and fewer workers than before. Amazon has acknowledged that their robots have enabled the warehouse to deliver customer orders faster. The symbiosis between humans and machines has also proved to be of much importance. They describe it as a software symphony that entails computer algorithms, machine learning, and people.
Human workers are acknowledged as the most significant component in the company. Without great employees, the technology would mean nothing. They engage and interact with it for it to be meaningful to the business. The company is evidently racing against the limits of technology to invent machines that can help to reduce the cost of business operations as much as possible. Although they are trying to reduce the human labor by replacing it with robots, there are some roles that remain outstandingly human, and no machine can replace them. For example, the picker role is uniquely human. Amazon is undeniably outstanding in the use of technology to carry out its retailing business.
Bergvall-Kåreborn, Birgitta, and Debra Howcroft. "Amazon Mechanical Turk And The Commodification Of Labour." New Technology, Work And Employment, vol 29, no. 3, 2014, pp. 213-223. Wiley-Blackwell, doi:10.1111/ntwe.12038.
Knight, Will. "At Amazon Warehouses, Humans And Machines Work In Frenetic Harmony." MIT Technology Review, 2017, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/538601/inside-amazons-warehouse-human-robot-symbiosis/.
"Online Retail Boom Means More Warehouse Workers, And Robots To Accompany Them." NPR.Org, 2017, http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2017/06/19/533506913/online-retail-boom-means-more-warehouse-workers-and-robots-to-accompany-them.
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