A Slippery Slope Between Collaborative Robotics and Human Workers

by Emely Cedano, with Michael Clarke | 06/19/2018

As companies shift towards relying more on intelligent robots in their work flows, the concern for human job replacement and robot autonomy rises.  The increase of ecommerce has intensified order fulfillment requirements, which pushes enterprises to need faster order processing and delivery speeds.  While the implementation of collaborative robots (cobots) have many benefits in terms of streamlining order fulfilment work flows, the full impact on human job replacement has yet to be determined.

In the digital age of ecommerce, customers demand unprecedented delivery speeds in as little as two hours, which has caused enterprises to bolster their warehouse capabilities through collaborative robotics. Behemoth enterprises like Amazon that receive hundreds of thousands of orders per day rely on quick order fulfilment to meet delivery deadlines. As an innovative and trend dictating company that consistently reevaluates its methodologies and updates its strategies for higher efficiency, Amazon acquired Kiva Systems in 2008 for $775 million dollars—its largest acquisition to date—in order to solidify its order fulfilment infrastructure.

Leveraging Kiva’s bright orange autonomous mobile robots (AMR) for applications such as materials handling, Amazon aims to streamline their order fulfillment process. Prior to the integration of the Kiva Robots, Amazon warehouse employees reported walking an average of thirteen to fifteen miles per day, picking and transporting order items to packers within the fulfillment centers. With the integration of the Kiva robots into Amazon’s work stream, order fulfillment volume improved by twenty percent and order time reduced to just fifteen minutes compared to the ninety minutes it took previously with solely human workers.   This operational efficiency improvement is largely due to the ability of Kiva AMRs to carry up to approximately 3000 pounds of items depending on the model.  Running up to 5mph on a grid sensor system, these Kiva AMRs are equipped with upward and downward facing cameras that read 2D barcode encoded labels along the designed grid. The cameras are essential to detecting how far off their bodies are from the center of the labels and then reporting these readings to the warehouse server. Every robot is also equipped with sensors that detects incoming obstacles and prevents the robot from moving forward. Thus, only needing to charge for five minutes every hour, the Kiva AMRs enhance operational efficiency in terms of production output, but also conduct operations in an energy efficient manner that does not disrupt the warehouse workflow.

After deploying one hundred thousand Kiva AMRs in their warehouses, many Amazon employees have voiced their concern that robots will replace their job. Amidst these concerns, Kiva AMRs were recently reported to have been flustered by a popcorn butter spill. While the AMRs were able to identify the butter spill, they proceeded as usual, slipping and causing a slowdown in order processing. As the popcorn butter presented an obstacle for Kiva sensors, the AMRs failed to adapt to a problem they identified. When retelling the story, Amazon Robotics’ chief technologist, Tye Brady, stated that: “machines lack common sense”, thus highlighting that collaborative robots have shortcomings and have a long road ahead before they can mimic human intuition.  Therefore, while the age of collaborative robotics implementation in the warehouse is in its infancy, its impact on operational efficiency for enterprise production is significant although imperfect.  The impact of cobots on human job replacement, however, has yet to be realized and depends on how closely robot intelligence and intuition can achieve the adaptability and critical thinking ability of the human mind.

If you would like to learn more about collaborative robots and industrial automation, read our VDC View.



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