Amazon’s DuPont fulfillment center is a sort of laboratory for how the company is using robots to do much of its heavy lifting. But it also shows how the human workforce is not only necessary but superior in some respects.
DuPONT, Pierce County — The thousands of bright orange automatons that haul shelves full of merchandise at Amazon’s fulfillment center here could be seen as a sign of the impending doom of the human workforce.
But the 500 or so full-time workers employed at this site have something robots won’t have for many years, according to experts. Humans have an intuitive understanding of the movement of objects, and fine motor skills that give them a firm hold on key warehouse operations like packaging and stowing goods.
Number of employees
Number of robots
That helps explain why Amazon.com, despite its worship of technology-driven efficiency, is well on its way to becoming the second-largest employer among Fortune 500 companies, mainly because of jobs in its warehouses. The company has 30,000 robots — but more than 230,000 employees, not counting the temporary staff it hires during the peak holiday period. In Kent alone, where Amazon just built a latest-generation fulfillment center, the company is hiring 1,200 employees this year.
At a time when automation stokes anxiety about the future of many jobs, these warehouse workers underscore both the promise and the current limits of automation.
The workers’ presence alongside thousands of orange robots — invented by a company formerly known as Kiva Systems, which Amazon acquired in 2012 — points to a lengthy coexistence in the expanding world of logistics.
“The scale of the whole operation is fascinating,” Dieter Fox, a robotics researcher at the University of Washington, said of the DuPont site, which he has visited. But he says it also shows the limitations of robots, most of which operate in a controlled enclosure separated from humans and can’t handle unpredictable tasks.
“When you look at these boxes and how unsorted the items are,” he said, “it’s clear that there’s still a lot of research to be done.”
Amazon spokeswoman Ashley Robinson said the company is “proud to be creating full-time jobs that offer the opportunity for employees to work with high-end technologies in our fulfillment centers to serve customers with great shipping speeds.”
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How far robots still have to go was also recently underscored by a Bloomberg News report indicating that Alphabet’s Google, which has bet big on robots, was selling Boston Dynamics, one of the avant-garde robotics firms it had acquired not too long ago. Two unidentified sources told Bloomberg that the sale occurred because the unit was unlikely to produce anything sellable in the near future; another source mentioned Amazon as a potential purchaser.
Critics argue that Amazon and other companies that rely on automation destroy jobs, because it takes fewer staffers to produce sales.
But it’s worth pointing out that despite all of its high-tech wizardry, Amazon by some measures is still not yet as efficient as, say, low-tech brick-and-mortar giant Costco Wholesale, which generates far more revenue per employee.
That comparison doesn’t include the huge amount of sales generated by third-party sellers using the Amazon site, which some analysts say exceeds Amazon’s own revenue. But those sellers also employ hundreds of thousands. Moreover, Amazon’s model, for now, relies on an army of delivery people at UPS, FedEx and other contractors, while Costco and other supercenters outsource most of that activity to their customers.
Hive of activity
Older Amazon warehouses have long had hundreds of workers walking all day through a maze of shelves, picking up items. But the million-square-foot DuPont facility is one of the newer ones, representing the eighth generation of Amazon’s warehouse design.
It is devoted to storing and shipping big items, and it’s highly automated, with wheeled robots doing most of the moving. There’s also a big robotic arm, nicknamed by its human colleagues “Optimus Stow to Prime,” that moves pallets from the bottom floor to the top floor. (The name is a reference to the Transformers science-fiction universe, in which humanity is caught in the midst of a war between good and bad robots.) There are 13 similar facilities around the U.S.
Staff members mostly are at workstations or driving vehicles; in a way, the scene is more assembly line than a typical warehouse.
At a workstation, an employee stocks shelves with a wide assortment of items that come off the trucks in packages of various sizes. The assortment depends on how items fit on the shelf, which ends up with dissimilar products sitting next to each other. It’s also an exercise that’s akin to playing three-dimensional Tetris.
That’s something machines can’t do because they can operate only in tightly controlled environments, says Emanuel Todorov, a robotics researcher at the University of Washington.
“Once you get into more unstructured environments, involving objects with different shape and size and material properties, as well as unpredictable spatial arrangements of multiple objects, it is still cheaper to hire humans (even in the U.S.) than to develop customized robotic solutions,” Todorov said in an email.
Once the worker fills up the warehouse shelf, it’s hauled away by an Amazon robot, which looks a bit like a large, orange Roomba vacuum cleaner.
When Amazon gets an order from a customer, a robot brings the appropriate shelf out of storage and toward another workstation, where another staffer grabs the objects after seeing them on a screen and puts them in a yellow plastic bin, which then is conveyed to a worker who puts them in a shipping box. It’s a bit like a drive-through: once the worker is done with that shelf, it rolls away on top of the robot and another drops by.
The final step, loading a cargo trailer with the boxes, is another Tetris-like activity that’s firmly in the hands of humans — for now.
This seeming human-robot equilibrium will not last forever. Robotics researchers are furiously working on improving robots’ dexterity, their visual and tactile perception skills and their ability to learn from experience.
Amazon itself is a key player in these efforts. The company is tinkering with drones that could one day play the part of thousands of delivery people. Its robotics division, which began with the acquisition of Boston-based Kiva, says on its website that its focus on robotics is “growing faster than at any time in the company’s history.”
Alberto Rodríguez, a robotics researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was part of a team last year that won second place in the Amazon Picking Challenge, a contest to spur innovation in warehouse automation.
His team developed a robotic arm that very slowly, but successfully, picked items of several shapes and sizes, including a bright red Cheez-It box, from a shelf and dropped them into a bin. He says that it’s unlikely that robots will be able to operate as ably as humans in a logistics chain in four or five years, but in the meantime “we can create value” by gradually deploying innovations here and there, he said.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is also a big robots buff.
Last month in Palm Springs he held a secretive conference of about a hundred people to talk about robotics and space exploration. An attendee said Bezos seemed “very gung-ho” about the progress of artificial intelligence and robotics, “more so than even most researchers in the field.”
Bezos also showed off the acrobatics of a few warehouse robots at a recent staff meeting. He even tweeted about it: “Got a little help from Amazon Robotics on stage today at our All-Hands in Seattle.”
The fear of creeping automation, meanwhile, is feeding into the malaise many U.S. workers are feeling about their role in the so-called “New Economy.”
In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 17 percent of workers engaged in physical or manual labor are “at least somewhat concerned” about workforce automation (vs. 5 percent for nonmanual laborers.)
Robots have even seeped into this year’s race for the White House. Former Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio, in his concession speech, talked about workers’ fears that “machines are replacing them.”
But it won’t be tomorrow. “The human hand is just pretty amazing,” said Fox, the UW researcher.