Making the Jobs Creation Argument: The Evolution of Robotics in Warehousing

In a recent New York Times article by John Markoff, the application of nimble and adept robots replacing manual labor is explored and arguments both for and against are put forth with the fundamental fact remaining  there is a need to reduce the complexity and cost associated with handling materials through today’s supply chains for consumer products to stay competitively priced and remain on our shores. In his article, John quotes the Obama administration on the subject:

This technological shift presents a historic opportunity for the nation to stay competitive. “The only way we are going to maintain manufacturing in the U.S. is if we have higher productivity,” said Tom Kalil, deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Furthermore, MIT’s McAfee, who co-wrote Race Against the Machine with Erik Brynjolfsson participated in a panel discussion with John Markoff on the subject of whether robots are ‘stealing’ jobs and purported the following:

Economists have been warning about displaced labor by new technology for years, and it has never happened, but said he thinks it might this time because robots can do things that we think of as the province of what humans do.

Automation: Eliminating Outsourcing & Fueling Job Creation

When automation simplifies the distribution and handling of product from manufacturer to store shelf, there is no need to outsource the manufacturing, distribution and handling of product in favor of low cost labor and the plants and jobs stay in the U.S. and other high wage countries.

Just recently, Josh Bond, Associate Editor of Modern Materials Handling, reported on his observations of the associated stigma of robotics in the industry at the 8th Annual RoboBusiness Leadership Summit held in late October.

“Currently, technical hurdles are not what’s preventing the growth of robotics in warehousing, attendees agreed. The bigger challenge is the stigma of automation-related job loss. In the case of both semi-autonomous pallet jacks and fully automated picking packing and palletizing, automation has not resulted in job loss, but in relocating those associates to more value-added positions.”

Ultimately, the jobs that are replaced by robots, are ergonomically unhealthy due to their repetitive motion and often times dangerous – as a result it is hard to fill these positions and turnover is extremely high.

Industrial Robots: The Work Horses of Today

Today’s automation in manufacturing and warehousing comes in the form of mobile autonomous robots (or rovers) that can sort, store and deliver materials through a warehouse or robots that exhibit behavior-based ‘common sense,’ capable of sensing and adapting to its task and its environment.

A fellow Boston robotics cluster company, Rethink Robotics, who recently launched its robot (Baxter) that can work alongside people in factories to do the mind-numbing tasks of routine assembly to free up people to more value added work. Since they are directed by people, their actions can be easily tweaked when needed to respond to frequent changes in product design. The founder and CEO, Rodney Brooks, believes that only good can come from applying robotics in manufacturing.

“At Rethink Robotics, we believe that all manufacturers, regardless of size and technology experience, should have an equal opportunity to benefit from industrial robots. They should be affordable. They should be safe to operate around people. They should be easy to train and work right out of the box. And most of all, they should help U.S. manufacturers increase production while keeping jobs from migrating overseas.”

Fleets of mobile autonomous rovers are employed in Kiva Systems to enable more efficient handling of product using sophisticated software, hardware and robotic engineering that ultimately simplifies the complicated logistics of material handling. This approach of applying robotics and software in a warehouse function (picking) was worth nearly three quarters of a billion dollars to Amazon, one of the largest distribution players in the world.

The Facts: Robotic Jobs Creation

KUKA Robotics recently published an infographic with facts and figures supporting all three argument that robots can work successfully alongside people, they create new jobs and replace the dangerous ones as follows:

  • When companies create new robotic automation products, many jobs out of the production sector are created to market and sell the robots including robot product technical support, sales, customer services and marketing.
  • Robots work in places that people cannot work, such as in dangerous mining scenarios, robots can go places people cannot go, and do dangerous jobs that people cannot do.
  • Surgeons use robotics in extremely delicate surgeries.
  • The automotive industry uses robotic automation to precisely cut delicate automotive parts.
  • Manufacturing sectors: traditionally low-paying “blue collar” jobs in manufacturing turn into high-paying jobs when robotics automation is introduced into a company. The workers receive training on how to operate the robots, which in turn increases their job responsibilities, their job security, their pay, and their value to the company.
  • The U.S. jobs numbers support new demand for skilled robotics operators:
    - May 2010 – approx. 3,000 new jobs
    - May 2011 – approx. 4,650 new jobs
    - May 2012 – approx. 6,000 new jobs

An Infographic of Warehouse Automation: Driven by Economic Conditions and Supported by the Pillars of Education

As the following infographic visually depicts, the economic drivers have consistently spurred innovation with the same goal  to lower product handling costs and create new jobs around robotic technology coupled with the foundation of education to develop the skill set in the workforce to deliver on this innovation.

Evolution of Warehouse Automation Infographic

We’ve assembled this illustrated overview of the major building blocks of automation in the warehouse since its inception. The story behind automation are the economic drivers that have propelled manufacturers to reduce the complexity and handling intensive routing of product from manufacturer to store shelf. Innovation has been focused on sophisticated engineering in software, hardware, and robotics.

Add this Infographic to Your Site:

<a href=’http://www.symbotic.com/evolution-robotic-warehousing/’><img src=’http://www.symbotic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Symbotic_Infographic.jpg’ width=’100%’></a><br/><a href=’http://www.symbotic.com/evolution-robotic-warehousing/’>Infographictastic: The Evolution of Warehouse Automation</a>

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