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Supply Chain News: Another Story on Saying Warehouse Robots aren’t Killing Jobs

 

Common Denominator is Recent Stories is Rapid Growth

April 3, 2018
SCDigest Editorial Staff

Is there some sort of a loosely coordinated campaign to allay fears about job losses from robots in the supply chain?

In just the past couple of weeks, we first got a story in the New York Times about a FedEx freight hub in North Carolina that is cautiously but steadily adding mobile robots – but finding the machines aren't leading to layoffs. (See FedEx DC Embracing Autonomous Mobile Robots – but Impact on Jobs is Minimal If Any.)

Supply Chain Digest Says...

Boxed, like the FedEx hub, is seeing high levels of growth, which can now be handled with much fewer new workers.


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The robots are replacing "tuggers" that are used in the facility to move non-conveyable products basically from receiving to staging, each of which requires a human driver.

This is a job that robotic automated guided vehicles – especially with advances in smarts and optical systems – can easily do, and FedEx is slowly replacing the 25 human drivers with the machines.

But not to worry, the Times article said. Jobs won't be lost because the hub has been adding more that 100 new jobs annually. Displaced tugger drives will simply move to different jobs. FedEx is "finding the machines aren't really net job killers at all" the Times says.

It also noted that Dave Clark, an Amazon operations executive, says even after Amazon has installed more than 100,000 Kiva robots at 26 distribution centers in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan, it is hiring massive quantities of DC associates.

It's the same basic story for on-line retailer Boxed, where CNBC recently reported a story under the headline "Robots make life better for workers at Boxed's New Jersey warehouse — and no one has been laid off."

Hmm….eerily familiar to the FedEx story.

Upon review, it appears the Boxed technology is what most of us would consider fairly standard DC automation, not robots, with a goods-to-picker system connected by conveyors.

Life is better now, says one worker, noting that she used to walk many miles picking orders. Now, she says, "The tote comes to you and you put the product in the tote and the tote goes away and another tote shows up. It's much easier, more interesting, it's kind of fun because you get to wear a headset, and the day goes by very quickly."

But when the plan was announced, many workers were in fact naturally anxious about their jobs. But not now, as the company has met its commitment of no layoffs from the automation.


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Well, you might ask, how then was there ROI from the investment? Because Boxed, like the FedEx hub, is seeing high levels of growth, which can now be handled with much fewer new workers. But what about at slower growth operations?

In fact, Boxed CEO Chieh Huang told CNBC that "If we stagnate as a business or the business declines, and the reality is, if we need additional profit, if we become public one day and the investors are calling for people's heads unless we generate an additional three cents of earnings per share, then that situation will be prime for us to need to make tough decisions with regard to the people."

 

He added that "We never want to be in that position.... As we continue to grow, luckily we've been able to add jobs and add automation."

There are some other stories out there now along this same theme, DC automation/robots without cutting jobs. The common denominator: rapid growth

It still seemly likely that before long robots will in significantly cut the need for DC workers. Since they are increasingly hard to find, that may not be such a bad thing, but the industry shouldn’t sugar coat the impact.

Many new advances in DC robotics will be on the show floor at the MODEX trade show next week in Atlanta.

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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