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Supply Chain News: FedEx DC Embracing Autonomous Mobile Robots – but Impact on Jobs is Minimal If Any


AMRs Replace Traditional Tuggers in Job where Humans Add Little Value

March 19, 2018
SCDigest Editorial Staff

A few weeks back, SCDigest ran a video discussion between editor Dan Gilmore and Gartner analyst Dwight Klappich on Klappich's prediction that so-called autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) would soon make a big impact on distribution operations. (See Gartner's Dwight Klappich on Mobile Robots in the DC.)

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Workers who once spent their time driving tuggers are being moved to other jobs, as total employment there grows.

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What are AMRs? There are actually a number of categories of such robots, from those that are basically smart automated guided vehicles that putaway, select and/or move full pallets, to smaller AMRs that are used to support workers in piece picking.

In late 2017, Garner predicted that "AMRs will transform warehouse operations over the coming years as they become truly autonomous and intelligent. Costs and complexities will continue to come down, which will open up the market to even more companies."

The most famous mobile robots are probably those behind the Kiva Systems solution – acquitted by Amazon in 2012 – that can be said to have ushered in the "goods to picker" concept that has made a huge impact on automation systems.

Now, a story this week in the New York Times that says a distribution center (really more of a freight hub) operated by FedEx in North Carolina is cautiously but steadily adding mobile robots – but finding the machines aren't really net job killers at all.

The DC in Kernersville, NC, is in fact already heavily automated, with conveyor movement and sortation of cartons. But like many DCs, this operation also handles a significant amount of large, non-conveyable products. For many years, workers moved these large products to putaway locations or on to shipping using traditional "tuggers" – machines each manned by a worker that mechanize the movement of the loads.

But this is the kind of job that in fact smart AGVs were very much designed to do – and for which a human is not required for movement inside the DC.

The facility started with one robot, which soon drew a three-dimensional digital map of the 630,000-square-foot DC as it moved the goods around. A few months later, three more of the robots – from a US company called Vecna - were added. Then soon two more.

Those AMRs operate right alongside still about 20 of the traditional tuggers with human operators. But more robots are coming.

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FedEx says that the robots did replace a few jobs right away. Over time, they are likely replace about 25 jobs in total as all the traditional tuggers are replaced, the New York Times article says. But that is in a facility that employs about 1,300 people. To workers there, the Times says, "a robot work force still seems like the distant future."

"Everyone will have a job," said DC manager Galen Steele told the Times "It just might be in a different place." That even though when the first robot arrived, "talk of pink slips was in the air."

Workers who once spent their time driving tuggers are being moved to other jobs, as total employment there grows.

"Most of the work in this facility still requires human dexterity. Modern robots are not nimble enough to unload a truck filled with randomly sized boxes or pack those boxes onto a truck at the other end of the hub," the article notes.

And that in a period where in many if not most areas there is a growing shortage of distribution center labor. "The biggest problem is not having enough people and I don't think that is going to change," Dave Clark, an Amazon operations executive, tells the Times – even after Amazon has installed more than 100,000 Kiva robots at 26 distribution centers in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan.

Will the robots not replace as many people in the DC as many think? Let us your thoughts at the Feedback section below or the link above to send an email.


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