This is what the latest generation of robotics companies like Covariant and Osaro specialize in, a technology that didn’t become commercially viable until the end of 2019. Right now, these robots are more adept at simple manipulation tasks, like picking up objects. and place them in boxes. But both startups are already working with clients on more complicated movement sequences, including automatic bagging, which requires robots to work with wrinkled, flimsy or translucent materials. In a few years, any task that previously required the performance of hands could be fully or partially automated.
Some companies have already started redesigning their warehouses to better take advantage of these new capabilities. Knapp, for example, is changing the layout of its floor and the way it routes goods to take into account which type of worker (robot or human) is better at handling different products. For objects that robots still touch, such as a net bag of marbles or delicate pottery, a central routing algorithm would send them to a station with human collectors. The most common items, such as household items and school supplies, would go to a station with robots.
Derik Pridmore, co-founder and CEO of Osaro, predicts that in industries like fashion, fully automated warehouses could be online within two years, as clothing is relatively easy for robots to handle.
That doesn’t mean that all warehouses will soon be automated. There are millions of them around the world, says Michael Chui, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute who studies the impact of information technology on the economy. “Modernizing all those facilities cannot happen overnight,” he says.
However, the latest push for automation raises questions about the impact on jobs and workers.
Previous waves of automation have provided researchers with more data on what to expect. A recent study Analyzing the impact of automation at the company level for the first time found that companies that adopted robots before others in their industry became more competitive and grew more, leading them to hire more workers. “Any job losses come from companies that didn’t adopt robots,” says Lynn Wu, a Wharton professor and co-author of the paper. “They lose their competitiveness and then lay off workers.”
But as workers at Amazon and FedEx have already seen, jobs for humans will be different. Roles such as packing boxes and bags will be displaced, while new ones will appear, some directly related to the maintenance and supervision of robots, others with the second-order effects of fulfilling more orders, which would require greater logistics and operations of delivery. In other words, the middle-skilled workforce will disappear in favor of low- and high-skilled work, Wu says: “We are breaking the career ladder and hollowing out the middle.”
But rather than trying to stop the automation trend, experts say, it’s better to focus on easing the transition by helping workers retrain and creating new opportunities for career growth. “Due to aging, there are several countries in the world where the size of the workforce is already decreasing,” says Chui. “Half of our economic growth came from more people working during the last 50 years, and that is going to disappear. So there is a real imperative to increase productivity and these technologies can help.
“We also just need to make sure that workers can share in the benefits.”