Robots transform logistics industry
In warehouses across the UK, an army of robots is rising. The FT's Michael Pooler reports on how intelligent machines and automation are spreading throughout the core of the logistics industry.
Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis and Carlos Homer. Produced by Daniel Garrahan
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In warehouses across the UK, an army of robots is rising. Intelligent machines and automation are spreading throughout the core of the logistics industry, helping to sort and process our online purchases, select our groceries, and package manufactured food products. As consumers demand faster and cheaper shipping from internet retail, the companies that run these facilities are introducing cutting edge technology to make what's traditionally been labour intensive processes more efficient and ultimately lower costs.
This is on show at Amazon's vast warehouses where items bought on its website are stored and shipped to customers. The company began introducing its own mobile robots into British sites last year. These orange machines whizzing around the warehouse floor receive instructions about the locations of goods. They then pick up the large shelving units which can weigh up to 340 kilos and take them to human workers, who either pick out the relevant items for orders or put products away for storage. Each day, an army of 2,500 of these mobile robots help dispatch hundreds of thousands of orders from this distribution centre alone.
They set a priority where they say, OK, I'm more important than you, you give way to me. There's also been developments with the technology which picks up incoming obstacles and traffic and says, OK, there's a problem there, I'm going to avoid that route and go around it.
A very different kind of automation is used by Ocado. Whereas most internet food orders are handpicked by employees pushing trolleys around supermarkets after opening hours, Ocado has its own system that retrieves items for humans to bag. Ocado recently put into operation a second generation facility that works in a grid system and the company hopes to licence it to other grocers.
What you'll find is swarms of robots, which inhabit a two-dimensional chess board and under every chess square there are a stack of bins. And what happens is the robots lower a grab and pick up a bin and bring it up into the body of the robot. And then the robot can move to another square and deposit that bin on to the top of another stack. So it's like a massively dense cube of groceries with these robots roaming around on top.
Despite the efficiencies that come with these technologies, there are fears of job losses as manual tasks are increasingly performed by machines. At the same time, e-commerce is contributing to the decline of employment's on the high streets. But Amazon has been expanding in the UK and says its robots have not got rid of human workers. It's opening four facilities in 2017, that it says will eventually create 3,500 jobs. What's more, companies say as fewer human hands are needed for menial functions, they'll be scope for more rewarding technical jobs. But critics say that although the logistics industry might have created some new jobs, it's not always secure employment with decent terms and conditions.
We've certainly seen a rise in casualisation. The gig economy of just clicking and getting people to turn up for there. Have we seen a rise in full-time secure employment? No, we haven't. And I think that's one worry about when automation comes in in a great way it can have a more detrimental effect on jobs.
But for now, robots often struggle with tasks requiring fine dexterity and judgement that's a human's forte. The German logistics group DHL, has recently installed collaborative robots or cobots, that work alongside humans and respond to their flesh and blood counterparts. The company plans to introduce even more automation to its production lines in the future.
If you look at how our production lines work at the moment, come back in 10 years time, it will still be a production line but it might look a lot different. And the people on that production line particularly may be less, but they may be doing different jobs in the facility that we've got here.
The question is what happens to those workers whose jobs are automated. [? Kalara ?] [? Sookostin ?] currently works alongside cobots at DHL, and he's worried about his future employment prospects in an increasingly automated world.
I would expect that some point in the time that my place in packing to be vanished, taken by a robot that already makes boxes. We have to find the perfection, so I have to do something else at some point in time. But I'm afraid.
Automation and logistics means consumers are getting products they want quicker than ever. But the unavoidable truth is that jobs are disappearing from the high streets as more shoppers flock online. And while there may be an increase in employment in the logistics sector, there are concerns that some of these warehouse roles won't exist in the future. Michael Pooler, Financial Times.