Amazon Automates in-Air and on the Ground—What Does this Mean for Workers?
Amazon continues to automate its delivery services, both on the ground and in the air, while global workforces remain uncertain of whether automation will truly work in their favor.
On November 10, 2022, the U.S.-founded multinational technology company, Amazon.com, Inc. (Amazon), announced the arrival of its new robotic handling system, Sparrow, and the development of its latest delivery drone, the MK30. While these announcements might generate excitement amongst Amazon’s customers, what do workers have to say about the rise of machines?
Worker concers rise as automation becomes an increasing reality. Image used courtesy of Pixabay
What do Workers Think About Automation?
A recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that there was “little support” for the concern that the rise in automation would lead to widespread job loss.
An analysis by Harvard Business Review involved interviewing 33 front-line supervisors and 34 warehouse workers (from countries including the UK, China, France, Spain, and the U.S.) to find out more about how they felt about automation, safety, and working alongside a robot.
Forty-two percent of responses shared worries surrounding the fear of job loss from displacement with robotic machinery. Accounting for 35 percent of negative responses, the second major concern involved the lack of inadequate training resources to sufficiently upskill workers for working in digital workspace.
Interviewees expressed that robots could help improve efficiency, reduce workloads, and reduce risks. They also felt that if they didn’t know how to handle the robots, then there would be little use in employing them for collaborative work. This is a good point because if machinery breaks down or malfunctions in some way and no one knows how to fix and operate it, the goal of automation, enhanced productivity and efficiency, wouldn't be achieved. This relates to final concerns regarding unreliable technology and not having the tools or know-how to fix automated machines when/if they break down.
Amazon's Sparrow Robot
Amazon champions its new Sparrow fulfillment bot as being an invaluable support to its employees. The bot is the first in Amazon’s warehouses that can help workers detect, select, and handle millions of individual items in the company’s inventory. According to Amazon, Sparrow is already able to identify about 65 percent of its inventory.
Amazon’s Sparrow fulfillment bot. Image used courtesy of Amazon
Sparrow is one of many among Amazon’s robotic innovations being showcased for the first time at the “Delivering the Future” conference.
Sparrow is intended to help relieve workers of repetitive tasks to free them up for safer and higher-value tasks. The new bot will also help expedite a critical part of the order fulfillment process to keep its customers happy.
MK30 Amazon Delivery Drone
One of Amazon’s other newly revealed robotic innovations is the aerial MK30 delivery drone, which is set to begin its duties in 2024. The MK30 has been designed to be lighter and smaller in form than its predecessor, the MK27-2.
The MK30 delivery drone. Image used courtesy of Amazon
The new drone also features a wider temperature tolerance, increased range, enhanced safety, and the ability to fly in light rain.
Amazon’s drones have a built-in sense-and-avoid system to enable them to make quick decisions and maneuver themselves to avoid pets, people, and other aircraft in good time. The MK30 has yet to undergo rigorous testing by national aerospace authorities (including the Federal Aviation Administration) to ensure the safety of its use and reliability.
Amazon’s Prime Air delivery service aims to deliver a selection of customer packages in as little as an hour, and eventually 30 minutes with its drone technology.
There are certainly mixed feelings attributed to the rise of automated machines in the workplace, and as we have seen here, robotic innovations such as Amazon’s delivery drone, MK30, still need to be evaluated for safety.
Despite this, Amazon and other companies striving to satiate customer demand for e-commerce goods will continue to automate. Amongst fears of job losses, Amazon believes that automation can create more jobs. The company said that the deployment of robotics and technology has created more than 700 new job categories.
Among the interviewees from HBR’s analysis, some did see positives in the integration of automation such as improved safety, the ability to carry out higher-quality work, and increased efficiency and speed.
Perhaps workers and warehouse operators simply need to see how things go and adapt accordingly. Workers have their rights and are entitled to their say regarding working conditions and how they are treated. Employers like Amazon also have a duty to train, support, and nurture their staff. As long as workers are supported as automation becomes ever more integrated into operations, there should be no reason why automation can’t work for everyone.