What that means for warehouse humans is an open question. There were 939,000 people working in the industry in February, up 44% over the past 10 years, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rise of e-commerce has created a need for more hands to pick items and pack boxes. Seattle-based Amazon.com Inc.’s rapid shipping times have taught customers to expect goods on their doorstep in two days or less, fueling a warehouse boom as retailers scramble to amass distribution hubs closer to their shoppers.
Logistics firms can have a hard time hiring enough people, particularly during peak shopping seasons. Adding robots should ease some of the seasonal shortages, and may make the work less physically demanding. Working conditions at U.S. warehouses are often scrutinized for their grueling nature: Pickers complain of exhausting shifts, sometimes in oppressive heat or biting cold. Many of the jobs are temporary, fluctuating with the shopping calendar.
Across the economy, almost 25 million jobs will be lost to automation in the next 10 years, while the new technology will create 15 million jobs, according to research firm Forrester. In the logistics business, smarter warehouse bots will likely reduce the number of people it takes to run a fulfillment center.
“I don’t think people are investing in automation because of a near-term labor shortage,” said Karl Siebrecht, CEO at Flexe, a Seattle-based company that bills itself as the Airbnb of warehouse space. “It’s about improving productivity. Fundamentally, that means people will be replaced.”