Amazon introduces warehouse robots amid fears of labour shortage

11 July 2022

Amazon has debuted its first fully autonomous mobile robot as a leaked internal memo suggests the company will run out of US labour supply by 2024.

Amazon unveiled its Proteus warehouse robot, which will operate alongside human workers to slot underneath package carts and push them along the factory floor.

“Historically, it’s been difficult to safely incorporate robotics in the same physical space as people,” Amazon said. “We believe Proteus will change that while remaining smart, safe, and collaborative.

“It can operate in a manner that augments simple, safe interaction between technology and people – opening up a broader range of possible uses to help our employees… which will help reduce the need for people to manually move heavy objects through our facility and instead let them focus on more rewarding work.”

The leaked research, conducted by Amazon and dated to mid-2021, warned: “If we continue business as usual, Amazon will deplete the available labour supply in the US network by 2024.”

Raising wages and increasing warehouse automation are two of the six “levers” Amazon could pull to delay this labour crisis by a few years, but only a series of sweeping changes to how the company does business and manages its employees will significantly alter the timeline, the research said.

Proteus will initially be rolled out in the outbound handling areas of Amazon's fulfilment and sorting centres, before being deployed more widely. Amazon aims to automate cart handling throughout its warehouse network, reducing the need for people to manually move heavy objects through facilities.

The robot shines a beam of green light to navigate, stopping if it detects something or someone blocking its path.

In 2012 the e-commerce giant acquired Kiva Systems, a robotics startup, for $775m. Amazon has now revealed multiple prototypes powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and computer-vision algorithms, from robotic grippers to moving storage systems, developed over the past decade.

Other robotic introductions include Cardinal, a robotic workcell that uses AI and computer vision to select one package out of a pile, lift it, read the label, and place it in a packaging cart to send on to the next step of its journey. The robotic arm aims to reduce workplace injuries and process packages faster by sorting them earlier in shipping operations. Amazon expects to deploy the technology in fulfilment centres next year.

Further technologies include AI scanning, using a unique camera to scan packages, and a containerised storage system, to automatically select packages and remove them from or return them to shelves.

Before the pandemic, Amazon was losing about 3% of its workforce weekly, or 150% annually. By contrast the annual average turnover in the transportation, warehousing and utilities sector was 49% in 2021 and in retail it was 64.6%, less than half of Amazon’s turnover.

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