The latest generations of robot companies like Covariant and Osaro specialize in this, a technology that became commercially viable only at the end of 2019. Currently, such robots are most skilled in simple manipulation tasks, such as lifting objects and putting them in boxes, but both startups already work with clients. more complex sequences of movements, including automatic packaging, which require robots to work with brittle, weak, or transparent materials. Within a few years, any task that previously required hands can be partially or completely automated.
Some companies have already begun redesigning their warehouses to make better use of these new opportunities. Knapp, for example, changes his floor schedule and the way he directs goods to take into account which type of worker – robot or human – is better at handling different products. For objects that are still stuck by robots, such as a mesh bag of marble or delicate ceramics, a central routing algorithm would send them to a station with human collectors. More common items, such as household items and school supplies, would go to the station with robots.
Derrick Pridmore, co-founder and CEO of Osaro, predicts that in industries like fashion, fully automated warehouses could appear online within two years because robots are relatively easy to handle.
This does not 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. “The conversion of all these facilities cannot happen overnight,” he says.
Nevertheless, the latest advances in automation raise questions about the impact on jobs and workers.
Previous waves of automation have given researchers more data on what to expect. Recent research who first analyzed the impact of enterprise-level automation found that companies that adopted robots ahead of others in their industry became more competitive and grew more, prompting them to hire more workers. “Every job loss comes from companies that haven’t adopted robots,” says Lynn Wu, a Wharton professor who co-authored the paper. “They lose competitiveness and then lay off workers.”
But as workers at Amazon and FedEx have already seen, jobs for people will be different. Roles such as packing boxes and bags will be replaced, while new ones will emerge — some directly related to robot maintenance and control, others from second-order effects of fulfilling multiple orders, which would require expanded logistics and delivery operations. In other words, workers with a high school diploma will disappear in favor of low- and high-skilled work, says Wu, “We’re breaking career scales and digging out the middle ground.”
But instead of trying to stop the automation trend, experts say, it’s better to focus on facilitating the transition by helping workers reshape skills and create new career growth opportunities. “Because of aging, there are a large number of countries in the world where the size of the workforce is already shrinking,” says Chui. “Half of our economic growth is the result of more people working in the last 50 years, and that will disappear. So, there is a real imperative to increase productivity, and these technologies can help.
“We also just need to ensure that workers can share the benefits.”