An Amazon warehouse is a flurry of activity. Towering hydraulic arms lift heavy boxes toward the rafters. And an army of stubby orange robots slide along the floor like giant, sentient hockey pucks, piled high with towers of consumer gratification ranging from bestsellers to kitchenware. Those are Kiva robots, once the marvel of warehouses everywhere. Amazon whipped out its wallet and threw down US 775 million to purchase these robot legions in 2012.
As I walked into one of the warehouses run by the aptly named Quiet Logistics in a suburban town outside Boston, I instinctively lowered my voice to a whisper. The room's massive ceilings reverberated my voice and there was surprisingly no noisy work to drown it out. In front of me, a subset of the building's roughly 200 employees earning between 12-18 an hour carefully packaged trendy clothes, shoes, and jewelry into brand-specific boxes, all without a sound. "We were shocked at how calm our warehouses felt," Bruce Welty, the founder and chairman of Quiet, which handles the packaging and shipping of items purchased online, told me in a phone interview before my visit. Many of the products come from a growing class of ecommerce startups that favor the direct to consumer model over brick and mortar stores.
It was Amazon that drove America's warehouse operators into the robot business. Quiet Logistics, which ships apparel out of its Devens, Mass., warehouse, had been using robots made by a company called Kiva Systems. When Amazon bought Kiva in 2012, Quiet hired scientists. In 2015 it spun out a new company called Locus Robotics, which raised $8 million in venture capital. Last year, Locus unveiled its own warehouse robotics solution called the LocusBot--first using it for its own business, then selling them to companies that ship everything from housewares to auto parts.
In the battle of humans versus machine on the warehouse floor, some companies have found common ground. Instead of developing technology to completely replace manpower, these firms are designing robots meant to work alongside people. These robots, for example, can guide workers to items to be picked or can transport goods across a warehouse to be packed and shipped. Deutsche Post AG's DHL is testing "swarming" robots at a facility in Memphis, Tenn. These machines help workers pick out medical devices that need to be shipped quickly.
Guess who's getting used to working with robots in their everyday lives? The very same warehouse workers once predicted to be losing their jobs to mechanical replacements. According to their makers, the machines should take on the most mundane and physically strenuous tasks. "They weigh a lot," Amazon worker Amanda Taillon said during the pre-Christmas rush at a company warehouse in Connecticut. Taillon's job is to enter a cage and tame Amazon's wheeled warehouse robots for long enough to pick up a fallen toy or relieve a traffic jam.