Amazon dismisses idea that automation will eliminate all its warehouse jobs soon

PHOTO: Scott Lewis/Flickr

Amazon.com Inc dismissed the idea of running a fully automated warehouse in the near future, citing the superior cognitive ability of humans and limitations of current technology.

Scott Anderson, director of Amazon Robotics Fulfillment, said technology is at least 10 years away from fully automating the processing of a single order picked by a worker inside a warehouse.

There is a misperception that Amazon will run fully automated warehouses soon, Anderson said during a tour of Amazon’s Baltimore warehouse for reporters on Tuesday.

The technology for a robot to pick a single product from a bin without damaging other products or picking multiple products at the same time in a way that could benefit the e-commerce retailer is years away.

Amazon is exploring a variety of technologies to automate the various steps needed to get a package to shoppers, Anderson said.

“In the current form, the technology is very limited. The technology is very far from the fully automated workstation that we would need,” Anderson said.

The tour came at a time when the company has come under fire from labour groups and other Amazon critics for allegedly poor working conditions in its warehouses and for increasingly automating jobs and reducing its dependence on human labour.

The largest online retailer is also not employing robots in its warehouses that handle fresh food, said Derek Jones, global director of environment, health and safety, who oversees Amazon’s fresh food offerings like Amazon Fresh and Amazon Pantry.

“Just imagine if you want bananas. I want my bananas to be firm, others like their bananas to be ripe. How do you get a robot to choose that?” he said.

Amazon runs 110 warehouses in the United States, 45 sorting centres and about 50 delivery stations. It employs 125,000 full-time warehouse workers in the country.

The warehouses that employ robots mostly handle general merchandise, which includes everything from lamps and clothing to kayaks and bikes.

The company said it is not changing the level of productivity at its warehouses to catch up with its recent one-day shipping announcement. It is instead making changes to the transportation and delivery process.

Last month, Amazon said it plans to deliver packages to members of its loyalty club, Prime, in just one day instead of two.

Anderson said Amazon’s current target is four hours from the time a product is ordered to the time it leaves the warehouse, and the company is sticking with that.

The e-commerce company did not share details on how the decision to raise its minimum wage to $15 had impacted workforce turnover.

However, it said applications for seasonal jobs doubled to 850,000 at the end of October last year from the record number of applications the company received in August 2017, when it held a national job fair.

Amazon raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour for U.S. employees in November, giving in to critics of what they said was poor pay and working conditions.

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