Tech

A new generation of AI robots is taking over warehouses

This is what the latest generation of robotics companies like Covariant and Osaro specialize in, a technology that didn’t become commercially viable until late 2019. Right now, these robots are most skilled at simple manipulation tasks such as picking up items and placing them in boxes. but both startups are already working with clients on more complex motion sequences, including automatic packaging, which requires robots to work with fragile, fragile, or translucent materials. For several years, any task that used to require hands to complete can be partially or fully automated.

Several companies have already begun renovating their warehouses to better take advantage of these new opportunities. Knapp, for example, is changing the layout of the floors and the way goods are delivered, considering which type of worker – a robot or a human – is better at handling different products. For objects that are still knocking down robots, such as a bag of marble mesh or thin pottery, a central routing algorithm will send them to a station with human pickers. More common items such as household goods and school supplies were sent to the station with robots.

Deryk Pridmore, co-founder and CEO of Osaro, predicts that in industries like fashion, fully automated warehouses could be open within two years, as clothes are relatively easy to handle by robots.

This does not mean that soon all warehouses will be automated. According to Michael Chewie, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute that studies the impact of information technology on the economy, there are millions of them around the world. “The modernization of all these facilities cannot happen overnight,” he says.

One of the first robotic manipulators with Covariant support, piloted by Knapp in a warehouse in Berlin, Germany.

However, recent advances in automation raise questions about the impact on jobs and workers.

Previous waves of automation have given researchers more data on what to expect. Recent research who analyzed the impact of automation at the company level for the first time, found that companies that introduced robots earlier than others in their industry became more competitive and grew, prompting them to hire more employees. “Any job loss is due to companies that didn’t use robots,” says Lynn Wu, professor at Wharton, co-author of the article. “They lose competitiveness and then they fire workers.”

But, as Amazon and FedEx have already seen, jobs for people will be different. Roles such as packing boxes and bags will be replaced, and new ones will appear – some directly related to the maintenance and control of robots, others with second-order effects of filling more orders, which will require an increase in logistics and delivery operations. In other words, the mid-skilled labor force will disappear in favor of the low-skilled and high-skilled, says Wu, “We’re breaking the career ladder and pulling out the middle.”

But instead of trying to stop the trend towards automation, experts say, it’s better to focus on facilitating the transition, helping employees retrain and creating new career opportunities. “Due to aging, there are a number of countries in the world where the workforce is already shrinking,” Chui says. “Half of our economic growth has come from more people working in the last 50 years, and it won’t be anymore. Thus, there is a real need to improve productivity and these technologies can help.

“We also just need to make sure the workers can share the benefits.”


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