Robots aren’t done reshaping warehouses

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By Patrick Sisson, The New York Times Company

When Digit spends an afternoon unloading boxes from a tractor-trailer in 100-plus-degree heat, co-workers never hear a complaint. Digit, a blue-and-white humanoid robot, was designed to handle the tough, menial and dangerous tasks at warehouses.

The robot’s movements, informed by years of studying how birds walk, include a slight sway in its frame when it is at rest, to dispel the discomforting stillness that bothers humans. It also does not talk, because voice recognition tech is not advanced enough yet.

“Instead of designing the whole warehouse around the robots, we can now build robots that are able to operate on our terms, in our spaces, in our environments,” said Jonathan Hurst, chief technology officer and a founder of Agility Robotics, the firm behind Digit.

Robotics and automation are not new to logistics; conveyor belts, scanners and other innovations have helped automate and accelerate the speed-obsessed industry for decades. But the pace of investment and change — fueled by the pandemic-era e-commerce boom, a tight labor market and a fragile supply chain — has taken off in recent years. Experts say robotics will change how warehouses are operated and designed.

“It’s a golden era we’re entering into,” said Tye Brady, chief technologist of Amazon Robotics. The e-commerce giant, which helped supercharge the industry’s turn toward automation in 2012 with the acquisition of robotics company Kiva Systems, has deployed more than 500,000 robotics units, including Proteus, its first fully autonomous mobile robot.

Labor organizations have a different perspective. Technology can make jobs more secure and safer, but the industry is too focused on using it as a cost-saving measure, said Sheheryar Kaoosji, executive director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, a nonprofit group in California.

“It has always wanted to cut labor costs, and reducing human labor is something the industry has seen as a way to save money for decades,” he said.

Adoption of robotics in warehouses will increase 50% or more in the next five years, according to surveys taken by the Material Handling Institute, an industry trade group. The goal is mechanical orchestration, in which a team of robots, steered by sophisticated software and artificial intelligence, can move boxes and products in a seamless environment.

“I worry for those owners who don’t do it,” said Erik Nieves, CEO of Plus One Robotics, which has teamed up with Yaskawa America to bring robotic arms to a FedEx sorting facility in Memphis, Tennessee. “Even today, a lot of warehouses are just racks, a cart and a clipboard. They’re just not going to be able to keep up.”

Billions are being invested by big players eager to stay on the cutting edge. Walmart, for instance, recently announced a deal with Symbotic to bring its system of belts, pickers and autonomous vehicles to all of the retailer’s 42 main sorting facilities.

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