(Economist) New robots—smarter and faster—are taking over warehouses

A decade ago Amazon started to introduce robots into its “fulfilment centres”, as online retailers call their giant distribution warehouses. Instead of having people wandering up and down rows of shelves picking goods to complete orders, the machines would lift and then carry the shelves to the pickers. That saved time and money. Amazon now has more than 350,000 robots of various sorts deployed worldwide. But it is not enough to secure its future.

Advances in warehouse robotics, coupled with increasing labour costs and difficulty in finding workers, has created a watershed moment in the logistics industry. With covid-19 lockdowns causing supply-chain disruptions and a boom in home deliveries that looks likely to endure, fulfilment centres have been working at full tilt. Despite the bots, many firms have to bring in temporary workers to cope during busy periods. Competition for staff is fierce. In the run-up to the holiday shopping season in December, Amazon brought in some 150,000 extra workers in America alone, offering sign-on bonuses of up to $3,000.

The long-term implications of such a high reliance on increasingly hard-to-find labour in distribution is clear, according to a new study by McKinsey, a consultancy: “Automation in warehousing is no longer just nice to have but an imperative for sustainable growth.”

This means more robots are needed, including newer, more efficient versions to replace those already at work and advanced machines to take over most of the remaining jobs done by humans. As a result, McKinsey forecasts the warehouse-automation market will grow at a compound annual rate of 23% to be worth more than $50bn by 2030.

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Posted in Corporations/Corporate Life, Science & Technology