Many people think that if you go into nearly any commercial warehouse nowadays, you’ll see it absolutely awash in machines. Automated robots in fulfillment centers are practically a mainstay of the industry, or at least, according to public imagination. Ever since the introduction of the very first warehouse robot, produced in 1956 by George Devol, every popular depiction of warehouses is one of automation, machine arms, and conveyor belts. However, the real numbers have historically painted a different picture.
Contrary to the popular idea that warehouses these days are almost entirely automated, one of the most popular types of warehouse automation robots, the AGV or automated guided vehicle, has an incidence rate of only 6%. Although a further 14% of warehouses are considering the implementation of this specific technology, that still leaves the rate of even evaluating the use of this new generation of AI warehousing technology at 1 out of 5. Even Amazon, who triumphantly released a prototype of a combination warehouse/delivery drone in 2013, has yet to reach their full potential in this regard. The Octocopter drone, predicted to one day be able to deliver packages straight to customers’ doors, has yet to see any real practical application.
Conventional wisdom before the Covid-19 pandemic stated that this was largely how things would remain. Corporations, not wishing to take risks on technology they feared wouldn’t meet their needs, would continue to employ large quantities of human workers for every facet of their business. However, in a post-Covid world, thinking has changed. Now that having a huge crowd of people under one roof can be hazardous, more and more companies are looking toward the new generation of robotic warehouse systems as a solution for their staffing needs. Upwards of 4 million autonomous and non-autonomous warehouse robots are set to be installed by 2025. The robot takeover seems all but guaranteed.
That’s not to say that there are no concerns. Legislators, warehouse and fulfillment employees, and people working for labor rights organizations have expressed concerns about these robots taking up jobs that would otherwise go to human workers, pushing these employees out of their occupations and perhaps out of the labor market altogether. This image goes in stark contrast to the picture of the kind, friendly robot in the warehouse that’s just there to lend a helping hand. Especially in the wake of entrepreneurs insisting that robotics will make middle-skilled labor obsolete, hollowing out the middle of the labor market and dividing work either into high-skill or low-skill, people have pressing questions about what that means for them and their jobs, especially given that studies since the 1990s have suggested that the implementation of robots has already lead to lower wages for certain industrial workers.
However, at present moment, there seems to be little reason to be overly worried. Fulfillment and picking technology currently in use at most warehouses are limited to a few different types of robots. One of which is collaborative machinery, such as those that assist workers in reaching high places or the aforementioned AGVs which move heavy goods from place to place. Another type is those robots that perform work too dangerous for human beings to do safely, or repetitive work that might cause injury to employees over long periods of time if performed for eight hours at a stretch, day in and day out.
What’s more, many economists believe that the increasing automation of warehouse technology will be a good thing for job creation numbers. With more robots, after all, comes more maintenance. Not just the major maintenance wherein something catastrophically breaks down, bringing operations to a screeching halt, but also the monthly, weekly, and even daily checks and tune-ups necessary to keep everything running smoothly and efficiently. We’re not at the point yet where we can have robots repairing other robots in perpetuity, so larger numbers of skilled human technicians, programmers, and engineers will be needed to keep everything running in tip-top shape. With 77% of organizations committed to mapping a plan to integrate some sort of warehouse automation into their business, it’s important to be aware that the effects may pose a net positive for worker opportunities going forward.
In short, thanks to the pandemic and the associated e-commerce boom, the popular idea that the average warehouse is a place swarming with whirring machines taking products back and forth may not be far from reality for very much longer. If things continue along their current trajectory, we can expect that 6% number mentioned earlier to grow exponentially even within the next five years, providing even more opportunity for businesses to grow, and furthermore, to hire vast numbers of new, specialized employees to care for these machines. With this amount of growth and commitment on the part of business owners and innovators, it may very well be the case that any warehouse activity currently involving human beings will have the possibility to be at least partially automated within the next few years.