An industrial dance takes place every day and night on the floor of Amazon’s huge warehouse in Manchester.
Tall upright shelves waltz in and out of each other’s paths and around stationary storage units, weaving backwards, forwards or sideways without touching. Performing the graceful movements is an unassuming troupe: squat orange machines on wheels and just 16 inches tall, which slot underneath and carry their loads in a geometric choreography.
The only humans in sight are around a caged perimeter surrounding the robots, where the storage units arrive for goods to be picked by staff through gaps in the fence, according to instructions from computer screens.
“Up until now . . . we’ve had these long aisles people walk up and down to find an item, pick it off a shelf and scan it, put it in a tote or on a cart to go somewhere,” says Roy Perticucci, vice-president of Europe customer fulfilment at Amazon.
“Now we have the shelves moving to the picker and that makes a huge difference. I would say [it’s] arguably the start of an assembly line working in logistics.”
The technology shows the transformation happening at the core of the logistics sector. Many functions that were once solely done by human hands are being carried out by robots as advanced automation takes root.
These changes raise profound questions about what will happen to jobs.
John Manners-Bell of the consultancy Transport Intelligence says a “tipping point” is approaching in the logistics industry, which has traditionally required lots of labour for transportation and in warehouses.
“A lot of these jobs are low-skilled and can be replaced in the near future by automation,” he adds. “Consequently we’re going to see a real root-and-branch change in the way the logistics industry is organised.”
Ocado, the UK online grocer that uses automation developed in-house to store and retrieve items, could dispense with most of its staff within a decade, according to Credit Suisse analysts who did a deep dive into its patent portfolio, although the company insists the workforce has only ever grown with increasing automation.
For its part, Amazon says it is actually creating employment by expanding its UK logistics network. The company is opening four new facilities in 2017 that will eventually recruit around 3,500 people.
Around the world, the growth of e-commerce is spurring changes in an otherwise unglamorous industry that acts as a vital economic artery by ensuring the smooth flow of goods.
Nowhere is this more evident than at its processing heart, where efficient storage and shipment in depots is crucial to meet rising consumer expectations of quick and cheap delivery.
Amazon pioneered the use of mobile robots in its US facilities after acquiring Kiva for $775m in 2012 and today it operates 80,000 of the machines globally.
In China similar machines are used in the depots of T-Mall, part of the online retail behemoth Alibaba, while elsewhere a host of hardware start-ups are developing robots they hope will one day populate the world’s warehouses.
As one of the most mature e-commerce markets, the UK is proving fertile ground for the adoption of such technologies. Companies such as DHL and Ocado are investing millions of pounds into systems that can variously retrieve goods, pick groceries and help pack items into boxes, offering productivity gains and reducing costs.
Amazon began deploying its robots in Britain last year. At the Manchester site, an £80m investment, some 2,500 are controlled by a central server that gives instructions about their speed and next location, based on a system of bar codes on the floor.
“They are basically following marching orders,” says Mr Perticucci. Each robot is capable of carrying 340kg and has a forward-facing laser and camera that detect obstacles, such as fallen items. Only trained technicians are permitted to enter the operating area and the system runs 24/7, apart from an hour’s down time every day for maintenance.
The variety of tasks undertaken in the broader sector has led to deployment of other innovative robotics systems.
Ocado, which has thousands of crates running around conveyors in its warehouses, recently began using a second-generation system based on a grid structure, across which robots move.
“[There] are swarms of robots which kind of inhabit a two-dimensional chessboard,” explains Paul Clarke, chief technology officer.
Under every chess square is a stack of bins containing a category of groceries, such as pints of milk or bread. The robot lowers a grabber to pick one up and brings it inside its body.
It then either takes the bin to another location within the grid or to an area on the edge of the three-dimensional structure, where human workers pick out and bag items. People also load fresh supplies into the bins, which robots then deposit within the grid.
“It’s like a massively dense cube of groceries with these robots roaming around on top,” says Mr Clarke.
Collaboration among the swarm enables the completion of a 50-item order in just a few minutes, compared with around two hours in Ocado’s first-generation warehouses.
The FTSE 250 company, founded by three former Goldman Sachs bankers in 2000, intends to license the system out to other grocers. It is also testing other new technologies, such as driverless cars.
Like other employers in the sector, Mr Clarke is keen to stress that robots have not caused job losses at Ocado, but rather helped the company prosper in the competitive and low-margin grocery business.
“Whenever we add a new piece of automation, people just move to doing something different — hopefully, something where they add even more value as a human being than what they were doing before,” he says.
At Amazon, Sean McFadzean is already doing one of the new and skilled jobs that are arising, working as a technician overseeing robots at the Manchester facility.
“There’s always a new challenge every single day. It keeps us thinking, keeps us on our toes. No two days are alike,” he says.
But others are more wary of their future in this brave new world.
Trade unions point out that the rise of internet retail is a factor contributing to the decline in high street employment. They also worry that increasing automation will both lead to the deskilling of workforces and serve as a pretext for more precarious terms and conditions.
Matt Draper, national officer at Unite, says the union has not yet witnessed redundancies due to adoption of robotics in the logistics sector. But with the rise of e-commerce and automation, he adds that “we’ve certainly seen a rise in casualisation [and] the gig economy — of just clicking and getting people to turn up [for work].”
Amazon has come under fire in the past for alleged employment practices at its UK depots. Today it stresses the package of benefits it offers to permanent employees, in addition to pay above the legal minimum, and says it does not have so-called zero-hours contracts.
Despite the fears, experts say that there are many tasks that robots currently struggle to perform on an industrial scale — and which fall squarely within human capabilities. These include gripping and actions involving fine dexterity. Other limitations are in their judgment and ability to improvise.
“The flexibility a human offers still vastly exceeds what machines can do,” says Mr Perticucci of Amazon. “I don’t think that’s going to change for a very long time.”
Robots and humans collaborate — but for how long? An unusual colleague assists with packing products such as confectionery and toiletries into boxes at the DHL Supply Chain warehouse in Liverpool.
It is a collaborative robot — so-called because it is designed to work safely with humans rather than separately behind cages.
Made by Rethink Robotics, “Sawyer” has an articulated arm and suction grabbers, with staring eyes on a small screen.
The “co-bot” is responsive to touch, can be shown how to do tasks without the need for programming and has improved productivity by 15 to 20 per cent.
Employee Calarasu Costin acknowledges that the machine makes his job easier, faster and improves health and safety conditions, since it can perform repetitive tasks that require discomforting movements such as twisting.
But he admits to being “afraid” that his job will one day be taken by a robot. “We have to find perfection, so I [will] have to do something else at some point in time,” he says.
The German logistics group has invested an initial £1m into the robotics programme and says its nine Sawyer models have had a positive impact on jobs. Mark Parsons, chief customer officer at DHL Supply Chain UK & Ireland, says a driving force of the adoption is that “labour is at a premium”.
“It doesn’t matter whether you believe it’s due to Brexit, or demographics, the truth is we’re in a very tight labour market,” he adds.Discover More