Lessons in Job Creation through Automation from Amazon

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Since @Aumanufacturings latest editorial gave us the chance to share some thoughts on Leadership in Factory Automation, the matter has been top of mind here at Black Lab Design. One development we’ve had a keen interest in throughout this year has been the enormous construction going on in Western Sydney’s Kemps Creek. The significant site, a short drive from the Western Sydney International airport, has been rapidly transformed over the past year into Amazon’s fifth Australian fulfilment centre. This one, however, is the first Amazon Robotics Fulfilment Centre in the Southern Hemisphere. The mammoth warehouse covers an area the size of 24 rugby fields across four levels, the largest ever warehouse built in Australia. It will house about 11 million items and double the operational footprint of the global e-commerce giant in this country. 

With an eye towards achieving the prompt delivery speeds enjoyed by Amazon customers in North America, the Amazon Robotics Fulfilment Centre employs a complex system of conveyor belts, robots, algorithms and storage pots to almost fully automate the process of parcel receipt, sorting and dispatch. Developed at the company’s Boston-based Amazon Robotics (formerly Kiva Systems), the robots themselves are quite simply smart transport units, almost resembling a robotic vacuum. Using a series of computerised barcode stickers on the warehouse floor and sensors on the drive units, the robots are able to slide under the storage pots, lift them and transport them to the required location or worker. The use of the clever technology takes the strain off the workers needing to lift and transport the vast quantity of goods whilst improving efficiency and eliminating human error from the process. 

The Robots in the Amazon Robotics Fulfilment Centre

“Utilising advanced technology, the robotics will enhance the efficiency of our operations as well as the safety of our associates, helping to support our Amazonians as they pick, pack, and ship the millions of items housed within the FC to customers around the country”.

Craig Fuller, Amazon Australia Director of Operations

Over the last few years, Amazon has been working out the kinks in the utilisation of the Robotic Fulfilment Centres in North America. As the algorithms running the software that essentially dictate the tasks of staff were still learning, and workers adjusted to their changed roles, there were certainly some problems experienced. The anticipated concerns around job losses were prevalent and skepticism over the long-term goals of the company arose. Were the warehouses just destined to become a futuristic maze of little automated machines carrying boxes around? Would human contribution be confined to just a handful of managers monitoring screens all day?  

The reality of the introduction of the robotic fulfilment centres was far different. The automation of the laborious process of finding, collecting and transporting packages around the warehouse for dispatch meant Amazon was able to boost their delivery times and drive down shipping costs. These savings were passed onto the customers, who enjoyed lower shipping costs. The low costs encouraged more people to use Amazon’s services, meaning the company hired more workers to meet increased demand. It appears that Amazon’s vision for these centres is productive collaboration between people and robots that appreciates the need for human judgment and intelligence in their processes and directs the monotonous jobs to the machines. 

Amazon worker inspects a warehouse robot

This perspective has enabled Amazon to become the largest job-creating organisation in the US in the last 10-years, amassing nearly 1 million full-and part-time employees in the country. As the automation of the warehouses develops, it can be assumed that employment growth in these facilities may slow, however it opens the potential for more skilled, ‘new-collar’ positions to emerge. A greater number of robots requires a greater number of skilled technicians and programmers. More automation means a broader variety of responsibilities available for warehouse staff to carry out. Operating alongside complex robotics and machinery allows workers to develop a stronger knowledge of the technology. Wider utilisation of technology drives the need for more staff in higher-paid office positions.  

Alicia Boler Davis, a former General Motors Co. executive who runs Amazon’s fleet of fulfilment centres, believes more automation will free up managers to engage more with workers. “I’d love for them to spend the majority of their time on the safety and people side of the business.” 

The new Sydney-based Amazon Robotics Fulfilment Centre will reportedly create more than 1,500 local jobs working alongside advanced robotics. The construction of the building alone brought 1,400 people to work in Kemps Creek, assembling the 13,500 tonne Australian steel frame. The facility itself is close to completion and is expected to start operating in January 2022, as suggested by the numerous job postings appearing for work in ‘BWU2’.   

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