Amazon is ramping up the use of bots as sales growth slows and it faces pressure to cut costs.
About three-quarters of the packages offered by the e-commerce giant have already been affected by some kind of automated system.
But Tay Brady, chief technology officer at Amazon Robotics, told the BBC that it was likely to reach 100%, or nearly, in the next five years.
The company declined to disclose the extent to which the investments contributed to reducing costs.
The employees were also quick to dismiss questions about how quickly machines are likely to replace their human counterparts, noting that 700 new types of roles have been created as technology advances.
“Jobs will definitely change, but the need for humans will always be there,” Brady said.
Brady spoke at an event at the company’s robotics center near Boston, Massachusetts where the company unveiled its latest suite of robotics, drones and mapping technologies to a group of reporters.
The company is testing a giant robotic arm that can pick up items before they are packed into boxes — which executives have described as a major achievement — and a machine that can move freely across the warehouse floor alongside humans.
Deliveries of the drones are scheduled to begin in the United States later this year.
“I really think what we’re going to do in the next five years will dwarf anything we’ve done in the past 10 years,” said Joe Quinlivan, vice president of robotics and information technology achievement. “We think this is going to really change our network.”
In some ways, Amazon is late to the bot party.
Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com has unveiled a warehouse with just four employees for nearly five years, while rival Walmart already has a drone-powered delivery program.
Companies across the supply chain are pouring money into such investments, driven in part by the difficulty of finding workers, said Dwight Klapich, vice president of research on the logistics team at Gartner.
“There’s a lot of innovation happening,” he said. “This is pretty much any industry, any company of size.”
Amazon, which reportedly warned in an internal memo last year that it could run out of people to hire in its US warehouses by 2024, has been working on such projects for more than a decade.
It bought Boston-based robotics company Kiva Systems in 2012 to jumpstart its efforts, while founder Jeff Bezos discussed the company’s aspirations for drones in an interview in 2013.
Amazon said it now has 520,000 mobile engine robots zipping across the floors of its warehouses, more than double the numbers in 2019. It has installed about 1,000 of an earlier version of its robotic arm for sorting packages at locations in the US and Europe.
The bots that the company demonstrated on Thursday also remained in beta mode, although deployments are expected to become more widespread over the next two years.
The company said it hopes to deliver 500 million packages by drone annually by the end of the decade, including to densely populated areas like Seattle.
But that would still be a small part of the 5 billion packages the company says it currently handles each year.
The robots were also not immune to the company’s focus on cutting costs, as the company’s sales slowed and concerns about an economic recession grew.
This year, Amazon shut down its drone program in the UK, and scrapped parts of the operations of bots, such as Scout, that had been working on a machine that could deliver it to people’s homes.
“We are very aware of the macroeconomic conditions there,” Brady said, noting that the company’s hiring freeze applies to the robotics division. But he added, “We will not reduce investments.”
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