Could Order Picking Be Automated in a Decade? Amazon Says Maybe

 

Amazon is the second largest employer – by job count – in the United States, tallying nearly 550,000 workers in 2018. But as the company continues to grow, that number could change – but not in the way you think.

A recent report from Reuters says that Amazon isn’t ready to replace all its warehouse workers with robots… but the point at which this is feasible is probably not too far off.

Scott Anderson, director of Amazon Robotics Fulfillment, told reporters that, due to the current limits of the technology, fully automating the role of order picker is “at least ten years away.”

But the response to this statement has been mixed. Is ten years a long time? As Gizmodo points out – Amazon employs 125,000 full-time workers in its fulfillment centers now. In a decade or so, if Amazon AND its competitors began automating their warehouses en masse, it would amount to about a million positions gone.

And while the response has been mixed as to whether this timeline is even realistic, it raises some big questions about the outcome of the automation question, whenever it does reach ready status. Will we be ready for these displaced workers? Even if the tech rollout is lumpy and needs a lot of supervision, the skills might be a mismatch for the order pickers who will be on their way out.

One sign we might have a little more time to address the problem lies in the “banana” problem – as Amazon and its competitors delve into more fresh products, the AI technology that allows machines to make smart “choices” hasn’t matured on a large scale.

Derek Jones, global director of environment, health and safety, describes the challenges inherent in automated tech being able to choose between ripe and firm bananas to satisfy customer requests and asks, “How do you get a robot to choose that?”

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