Artificial Intelligence

Will Smarter Robots Give eCommerce A Boost?

The next great robotic breakthrough is upon us — according to recent Wall Street Journal reports, it’s a machine that can pick up a toy and place it in a box correctly.

Admittedly it’s a bit more exciting than it sounds, since it may sound like science has designed robots to have the net skill level of a five-year-old human child.  But, as it turns out, that simple skill and figuring it out has been a major hurdle to automating warehouse work.

But it seems the toy-picking robots may be upon us, as Hudson’s Bay Co. and China’s JD.com are now testing their own robotic “pickers” distribution centers. According to some robotics experts, robots can move inventory almost 50 percent faster than their human counterparts.

And that speed is getting increasingly needed as eCommerce revenue in the States hit $390 billion last year, just about twice its 2011 levels. And U.S. growth is not the fastest of the fast — that tends to be seen in China and Southeast Asia in general.  This has meant the race to find workers had been tight — and labor shortages are becoming endemic — as picking and packing are among the most labor intensive parts of the eCommerce process.

“When you’re talking about hundreds of millions of units, those numbers can be very significant,” noted Marc Wulfraat, president of consulting firm MWPVL International Inc. “It’s going to be a significant edge for whoever gets there first.”

It is an advantage that retailers are already fairly keyed into.

“This thing could run 24 hours a day,” said Erik Caldwell, the Hudson Bay’s senior vice president of supply chain and digital operations, at a conference in May. “They don’t get sick; they don’t smoke.”

So is it time for workers to worry that a robot is taking their jobs? So far, automation has not been keyed to mass layoffs in distribution centers — largely because volumes have been growing so quickly that distribution centers aren’t ready to look for less help. Plus, automated picking is still at least a year away from commercial use, robotics experts say.

Which is not to say some companies — Amazon, notably — aren’t eager to speed the industry along. The eCommerce giant will hold its third annual automated picking competition at a robotics conference in Japan later this month. Entrants won’t know in advance all the items the robots will need to pick, which will be a first-time challenge for developers.

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