A new generation of AI-powered robots is invading warehouses

This is where the latest generation of robotics companies like Covariant and Osaro specialize, a technology that only became commercially viable at the end of 2019. Currently, these robots are the most common. good at simple handling tasks, such as picking up items and placing them in boxes. , but the two startups are already working with clients on more complex motion sequences, including self-bagging, which forces robots to work with crumpled, brittle, or translucent materials. In a matter of years, any task that previously required hands to complete could be partially or fully automated.

Some companies have already started to redesign their warehouses to better capitalize on these new capacities. Knapp, for example, changes the layout of its floor and the way it routes goods to take into account the type of worker (robot or human) who is most adept at handling different products. For objects that still crush robots, like a mesh bag of marbles or delicate pottery, a central routing algorithm would send them to a station with human pickers. More common items, like household items and school supplies, would be sent to a station with robots.

Osaro co-founder and CEO Derik Pridmore predicts that in industries like fashion, fully automated warehouses could come online within two years because clothes are relatively easy for robots to manipulate.

This does not mean that all warehouses will soon be automated. There are millions of them around the world, says Michael Chui, a partner of the McKinsey Global Institute, which studies the impact of information technology on the economy. “Modernizing all of these facilities cannot happen overnight,” he says.

One of the first Covariant robotic arms that Knapp piloted in a warehouse in Berlin, Germany.

Nonetheless, the latest automation push raises questions about the impact on jobs and workers.

Previous waves of automation have provided researchers with more data on what to expect. A recent study who first analyzed the impact of automation at the enterprise level found that companies that adopted robots before others in their industry became more competitive and grew more, leading them to to hire more workers. “Any job loss comes from companies that haven’t adopted robots,” says Lynn Wu, professor at Wharton and co-author of the article. “They lose their competitiveness and then lay off workers. “

But as workers at Amazon and FedEx have already seen, jobs for humans will be different. Roles such as packing boxes and bags will be moved, while new ones will emerge, some directly related to the maintenance and supervision of robots, others to the second-order effects of running a more large number of orders, which would require extensive logistics and delivery operations. In other words, the mid-skilled workforce will disappear in favor of low- or high-skilled work, Wu says: “We are breaking the career ladder and gutting the middle. “

But rather than trying to stop the trend towards automation, experts say, it’s better to focus on facilitating the transition by helping workers retrain and creating new opportunities for career development. “Due to aging, there are a number of countries in the world where the size of the workforce is already shrinking,” says Chui. “Half of our economic growth has come from more people who have worked in the past 50 years, and that’s going to go away. So increasing productivity is imperative, and these technologies can help.

“We also need to make sure that workers can share the profits. “

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