Can Amazon Remain on the Cutting Edge of Jobs and Automation?

September 14, 2017 - 3 minutes read

Last week, Amazon announced that it is looking for the right city to house its second headquarters. Several American cities of varying sizes are competing for the facility, including Chicago, Washington, D.C., Salt Lake City, Austin, Charlotte, Tulsa, and Columbus, OH. The dominant narrative of the American economy right now is simple: Americans need good jobs, and the new Amazon headquarters promises to add 50,000 jobs to whatever city wins the bid. Despite President Trump’s grievances about the online shopping juggernaut taking away jobs by disrupting the way retail traditionally works, Amazon’s warehouses are adding thousands and thousands of entry level jobs in a country that desperately needs them. But many Seattle Android app developers and tech observers are worried that those much-needed human jobs will melt away as the company continues to make advances in automation.

For now there’s an interesting balance at Amazon’s warehouses between man and machine. As it stands today, Amazon “employs” 100,000 robots around the world — and Android app developers can expect many more to join its workforce in the coming years. Automation alleviates the often literal pains of warehouse labor, preventing employees from the kind of back-breaking work that can make jobs like this a living hell. Amazon claims that the robots are doing the mindless work too, although it’s arguable whether or not finding items off shelves and packaging them is actually stimulating. This is a lot of what the flesh-and-blood workers do in Amazon’s warehouses; they are “stowers” and “pickers” and “packers” who replenish merchandise for the robots to haul, package up items for shipment, or, perhaps most interestingly, troubleshoot issues with their mechanical co-workers.

The company recently granted The New York Times access to its facilities to watch the robots at work. The resulting report reveals innovation such as a yellow mechanical arm that stacks bins off of conveyor belts and beetle-like robots that carry 3,000 pound shelves of merchandise on their backs. This is the fruit that has come from Amazon’s purchase of Kiva Systems for a whooping $775 million in 2012 (it is the fourth largest acquisition the company has made, after Whole Foods, Zappos, and Twitch). Now Amazon Robotics, the outfit is plowing ahead on new ways to improve efficiency in the warehouses. Their hard work in automation innovation has lead to reliable two-day shipping (something Android app developers can get behind), but as they move forward, the balance between human and non-human workers will likely start to tilt to the bots.

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