Amazon doubles-down on hybrid human/robot workforce in Illinois warehouse

More than 25 of Amazon's 175 fulfillment centers worldwide use robotics units to improve efficiency.

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Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • Amazon's warehouse in Monee, Illinois became the latest to pair humans and robots together to improve order efficiency.
  • More than 25 of Amazon's 175 fulfillment centers worldwide use these robotics units, for about 100,000 total robots in use.

In an Amazon warehouse in Monee, Illinois, humans and robots now work alongside one another to fill customer orders, as part of the tech giant's continued expansion of robot-human collaboration meant to improve efficiency.

Amazon's warehouses have been partially automated for some time, with a growing number using Kiva robots to carry shelves of products to human workers, who then select the items to be shipped, as reported by TechRepublic's Nick Heath. The Monee location is the latest iteration of this design, according to The Chicago Tribune.

Facilities with robots tend to employ more humans than those without them, because they are more efficient and process more orders, the Tribune reported. More than 25 of Amazon's 175 fulfillment centers worldwide use these robotics units, for about 100,000 total robots in use, according to the report.

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While advanced automation is poised to impact nearly every industry, manufacturing has already seen major changes due to the emerging technology, with no signs of slowing down.

Some 13% of manufacturing firms have already adopted collaborative robots, though they only became available in 2014, according to a report from ABI Research. Robots in warehouses are predicted to jump 15x over the next three years, according to a report from Tractica. The demand for automated workers is also set to majorly impact supply chain operations, going from 40,000 units in 2016 to a projected 620,000 by 2021, the report found.

Many experts predict that robots will continue to complement human workers, and free them up to do higher-level tasks, rather than completely replace them. However, a recent report from Ball State University predicted that half of low-skilled US jobs were at risk of being replaced by automation in the future.

The Amazon warehouse in Monee has been in operation since August, with more than 2,000 full-time employees working alongside a fleet of Kiva robots, delivering items to workers. Amazon told the Tribune that the expansion of the robots has led to more investments and new jobs.

Despite the robot influence, most workers' jobs "aren't as different as you'd think" from what they'd be doing in a warehouse without robots, Jeff Messenger, the facility's general manager, told the Tribune.

The robots handle what would be considered grunt work, moving boxes around, while also helping humans become more efficient by dispensing the right amount of packing tape. It has been more difficult to develop robots that can pack an order box themselves, as humans often have to step in when things don't work perfectly, the Tribune reported.

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Image: CNET