The Future of Robot Labor Is Unfolding in Shipping Warehouses
What’s happened inside warehouses since Amazon bought a fleet of robots in 2012?
Image: Sharon Attia.
As I walked into one of the warehouses run by the aptly named Quiet Logistics in a suburban town outside Boston, I instinctively lowered my voice to a whisper. The room's massive ceilings reverberated my voice and there was surprisingly no noisy work to drown it out.
In front of me, a subset of the building's roughly 200 employees earning between $12-18 an hour carefully packaged trendy clothes, shoes, and jewelry into brand-specific boxes, all without a sound.
"We were shocked at how calm our warehouses felt," Bruce Welty, the founder and chairman of Quiet, which handles the packaging and shipping of items purchased online, told me in a phone interview before my visit.
Many of the products come from a growing class of ecommerce startups that favor the direct to consumer model over brick and mortar stores. For the customer, the process is seamless.
Your friend tells you about a new razor startup, or maybe you see an ad for a mattress one. An order is then placed via the company's meticulously designed website, and the goods arrive at your doorstep in a matter of days. How they got there is rarely even an afterthought.
For the workers of warehouses like Quiet's, making deliveries appear almost magical is what they're paid for. Right now, a whole new class of robots are changing their jobs, foreshadowing changes dozens of industries will face at the hands of new technologies in the next few years.
These brand new bots began to arrive on the scene all because of a purchase Amazon made in 2012.
That year, Amazon bought a Massachusetts-based robotics company called Kiva Systems (now Amazon Robotics) for $775 million and almost immediately made its robots proprietary. That meant that Kiva robots could only be used in Amazon's own warehouses, and nowhere else.
Amazon then invested in an army of Kiva's bots and expanded its Prime service, which promises customers that orders will be delivered in only two days. Any company responsible for shipping stuff to customers that wasn't Amazon suddenly had to find a new technology solution if it wanted to compete, including Quiet.
"There was a moment in one of the board meetings and I said we would be really screwed if Amazon bought Kiva," Welty told me. "Do you know the five stages of grief? Well we went through those."
The small orange Kiva robots, an older version of which Quiet still uses through a legacy agreement, require a specialized network of barcodes on the ground that they use to "see" where they're going. On top of them rests a large shelf, which holds the products.
When summoned, the Kiva robots bring their shelves to workers, saving them from having to go pick the items themselves. This drastically cuts down on the amount of time it takes to get an order out the door, making services like Prime possible.
Perhaps most importantly, it drastically cuts down on the amount of energy that warehouse workers have to exert. Although not every Amazon fulfillment center is equipped with them, when they are used, the bots make it so that workers are freed from having to walk what used to be more than a dozen miles a day.
But what makes the Kiva bots cumbersome is that a warehouse has to be designed completely around them. Floors needs to be divided up into a custom grid that the Kiva robots can move on, and when they're operating, people can't be in the way of the blind bots or else they risk getting hit.
Because of their disadvantages, when Amazon took Kiva's robots off the market, some technologists saw what could be an insane opportunity for profit: to make a better bot to replace them.
Welty was one of them. Almost $14 million and two years later, he and his colleagues have developed Locus Robotics.
An autonomous company separate from Quiet Logistics, (although Welty is the Chairman of both) Locus makes warehouse robots that ultimately aim to give Amazon's competitors a leg up. The company raised $8 million in venture funding in May, and the bots will reportedly sell for around $30,000.
The almost five foot tall robots are designed specifically to be used in warehouses that distribute apparel. The company's roboticists taught me how to use one, and it's shockingly easy. Equipped with a simple user interface displayed on an ipad, there's a spot for workers to hang clothes, place shoes, and flexible bins for other items.
The Locus bot tells a worker exactly where an item is, and all they have to do is give it to them. It then knows to bring it back to another area for packaging. The best part about the Locus bots is that unlike Kivas, they are able to see and avoid people and other objects in their way. This means that when a logistics company decides to upgrade their technology, they don't have to redesign their warehouse the way they would if they were using Kivas.
One of the coolest features of the Locus is how flexible they are when it comes to a worker's language needs. If a worker is wearing a specially designed bluetooth badge, when they approach the Locus bot, it will automatically switch to the employee's preferred language.
"This is not technology for the fun of it," Karen Leavitt, the Chief Marketing Officer of Locus told me at its offices in Massachusetts. "Our customers are operating multi-million dollars companies with razor thin margins," she explained.
Locus isn't the only robotics company trying to replace Kiva. Other companies, like Iam Robotics, 6 River Systems, and Fetch Robotics are beginning to develop technologies that will all ultimately try to do the same thing—alter human workers to make them more productive.
The only concern is what happens if they transition from merely altering human workers to replacing them entirely.
When I brought up the idea of robots eventually making warehouse workers obsolete, Welty, who is normally open and calm, became noticeably annoyed. "What people don't understand is that there are many more jobs than there are people to fulfill them," he said. "Go to any industrial park and I guarantee you will find a help wanted sign."
"My theory here is that a combination of robots, people, and a user interface...together gives the optimal solution," he said. Since robots have been brought into them, he think that working in warehouses has "gone from being a very hard job to actually quite a pleasant job."
Executives at other companies who make similar robots echoed Welty's sentiments.
"We envision a progression of the technology," Iam Robotics CEO Tom Galluzzo told me in an email. "The people supervising the robots get an easier, and more valuable job."
"It's not either robots or people; it's robots and people," Melonee Wise, the CEO of Fetch Robotics said.
Even if in the short term only a fraction of warehouse jobs are lost to automation, that might mean that extremely vulnerable segments of the population are forced out of work, like people with cognitive disabilities.
2015 Data from the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission indicates that only 35.5 percent of Massachusetts residents with disabilities are employed. According to Quiet, its warehouses are some of the biggest employers of people with disabilities in the state.
If their jobs in warehouses like Quiet's were to be lost to evolving technologies, it's not necessarily clear that they would be replaced in other parts of the economy. Even losing a couple of jobs to robots might be a big deal in the short term.
The question that still remains though is this: do we as a society even want to keep these jobs, for anyone, the way they are now?
In the past several years Amazon has garnered a seemingly endless string of negative reports about the working conditions inside its fulfillment centers.
The job is notoriously grueling. In warehouses without Kivas, workers have to manually pick items off shelves, adding up to walking upwards of a dozen miles a day. Other reports also showed that some warehouses were unbearably hot, making the job all the worse.
Workers are also expected to meet sky high picking quotas, or else they risk getting fired.
Working in an Amazon warehouse "made me feel inhuman," Reddit user jacoballen22 told me after I reached out to him and other users who had shared their experiences working for Amazon on several subreddits focused on discussing jobs. "I felt like a drone there," they said.
Warehouse workers are also historically not well protected by their employers. The patchwork of people who work in warehouses for third party logistics contractors like Quiet is so complicated that it's sometimes difficult to figure out who actually employs any given person.
For example, if you buy a pair of leggings from a posh athletic wear company, the person who packages and ships them rarely works for the retailer itself. That doesn't mean that they're employed by the warehouse either. Oftentimes they actually work for a temp agency. Quiet Logistics said that they alone work with ten different such agencies in order to staff their two warehouses.
Although robots are unlikely to solve labor issues, it is possible that they could make working in warehouses easier.
Melonee Wise, the CEO of Fetch Robotics, explained at a technology conference earlier this summer that she believes her company's robots will actually allow warehouse workers to keep their jobs longer, since they won't be exerting so much wear on their bodies.
Doug Parker, the Executive Director of Worksafe, a California-based organization dedicated to eliminating all types of workplace hazards, was not so convinced.
"Robots could certainly eliminate some types of dangerous work or work that is damaging to the body through repetitive stress, but in the warehouse setting it's hard to imagine the 'sweet spot' for workers where it eliminates the hazardous aspects of jobs but not the jobs themselves, or at least many of them," he said in an email.
"I think the biggest health consequences are the ones associated with losing a job—stress, the health effects of going down a rung or two on the economic ladder, since workers typically get lower paying jobs after being laid off, loss of health benefits, etc."
What's confusing is that if this new class of robots isn't cutting down on labor costs, it's difficult to understand why companies would invest in them. If you aren't saving money in the long run, then why buy new expensive technologies?
The answer might be speed.
In 2014 according to Amazon, the Kiva robots were able to shave more than an hour off the average order. It's only likely that they've improved since then. Locus claims that their robots are even faster—up to 75 percent quicker than the Kivas.
This new group of robots is in a race to see who can make items appear first at your front door.
The experiences of people working with robots in warehouses serves as a template for how technology is changing almost every industry.
We tend to think of robots barging in and replacing people immediately, but what's more likely is an intermediary stage, which we're beginning to experience now.
Most robots are still relatively dumb, and cannot perform human-level tasks. Even the most sophisticated warehouse robots can't yet pick and package simple orders on their own.
In the meantime, we're going to have to learn what it's like to work alongside robots, even if they do replace many of our jobs in the long run.
Amazon did not return Motherboard's request for comment.