Job Destroyers or Helpers? Amazon, FedEx Hiring More Robots & Humans

Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence technologies have stoked fears that machines are coming for humans’ jobs in a variety of industries. Some executives of robotics companies have tried to allay those concerns, arguing that in many cases, people’s roles will evolve, but technology won’t eliminate their jobs completely.

A report by The New York Times indicates that’s how things seem to be playing out in the warehouse and logistics sector, at least for now. The article highlights a FedEx (NYSE: FDX) shipping center in North Carolina that has deployed autonomous “tugging” robots that haul large and unusual items around the 630,000-square-foot facility. The machines are made by Vecna Robotics, the logistics robots business owned by Cambridge, MA-based Vecna Technologies.

Vecna’s robots are expected to replace about 25 jobs at the North Carolina facility—a small fraction of its 1,300-person workforce. The center adds about 100 jobs every year, the Times reported. The manager of the facility told the newspaper that people who previously drove those tugging machines now might carry out tasks like putting boxes onto trailers or loading trucks.

Meanwhile, shipping and logistics company DHL has experimented with warehouse robots made by two other startups, Wilmington, MA-based Locus Robotics and San Jose, CA-based Fetch Robotics, the Times reported.

Not surprisingly, Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) seems to have made more progress in integrating robotic systems in its warehouses, according to the Times. The e-commerce and tech giant paid $775 million to acquire Massachusetts-based warehouse robotics firm Kiva Systems in 2012, and since then it has deployed more than 100,000 Kiva robots at 26 distribution facilities in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Japan, the Times reported.

But even with the increased automation at their shipping facilities, these companies continue to hire people and, in some cases, are struggling to find workers to fill open positions, according to the article.

The takeaways are that the explosion in online shopping has led e-commerce and logistics companies to invest in both technology and people—and that there are still tasks in warehouses that machines can’t perform or that humans simply do better.

The question is whether that will always be the case.

Vecna Robotics CEO Dan Patt, for one, doesn’t avoid the issue. In an interview with Xconomy in January, he acknowledged that “the labor market will be widely disrupted” by new technologies. “It’s going to be a painful time,” he said.

But he also thinks it’s possible to design robotics systems in a way that can “elevate the humans”—creating opportunities for different, but perhaps more satisfying jobs.

“I think it’s our responsibility to help steer [automation] in a beneficial direction,” he said in the interview. “If we apply automation right, we can harness the human’s mind, harness their creativity. And yes, we still need humans in this [warehouse and manufacturing] environment.”

You can hear more from Patt, as well as executives from Locus and other warehouse robotics companies, at Xconomy’s Robo Madness conference on April 12 at iRobot’s headquarters in Bedford, MA (click here for more info).

[Top image of a Vecna warehouse robot is a file photo courtesy of Vecna.]

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