The Human Cost of Amazon Sparrow: How Automation is Impacting Warehouse Workersby@swastikaushik
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The Human Cost of Amazon Sparrow: How Automation is Impacting Warehouse Workers

by Swasti KaushikDecember 29th, 2022
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With its ability to sort and deliver items at a lightning speed, the Amazon Sparrow robot has been making waves in the world of e-commerce. However, there are concerns that the use of these robots may result in the loss of jobs for human employees. While Amazon maintains that the Sparrow would replace routine jobs and free up staff to work on more difficult ones, some contend that using robots may result in fewer options for employment and lower pay for human workers. What the Amazon Sparrow will do to the workforce remains to be seen in the future.
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In a warehouse some half an hour to the west of Boston, Amazon showcased the brilliance of a new high-functioning automated storage and retrieval system- capable of replicating human efficiency in picking and placing operations.

The robot Sparrow is the “first robotic system in our warehouses that can detect, select, and handle individual products in our inventory” the company’s November news release reads.

Joe Quinlivan, Vice President of Amazon’s technology and logistics team describes the robot as a “major leap” for warehousing. The term makes sense since the robot developers have been trying for over a decade to get a breakthrough in replicating something as presumably ordinary as the human’s ability to pick up stuff.

The “mundane” jobs involving picking, sorting, and placing currently employ a large number of people making them work endless hours on minimum wages.

“You’re not stopping,” says Jake- a warehouse worker who left the company due to damaged discs. “You are literally not stopping. It’s like leaving your house and just running and not stopping for anything for 10 straight hours, just running.”

Within no time, the robot will be accompanied by its machine cousins putting an end to thousands of jobs, Amazon argues, marking the birth of thousands of others.

Exploring the Features and Capabilities: What humanifies it?

Sparrow uses seven vacuum gripper cups for picking | Amazon[1]

Sparrow once employed in the warehouses could work tirelessly sorting around 13mn packages without human intervention. This wonder of computer vision and artificial intelligence can reportedly identify 65% of the current product inventory. Built on the concept of learning by doing, it can adjust its seven rubber-tipped, vacuum-powered suction cup “hands” for handling products of different shapes and sizes.

The group didn’t explain how the coming range of robots will revolutionize the operations, but a patent filed in 2020 gives an insight into its action plan. It says that “ improvements in various operations of order fulfillment, such as improvements to picking technology, sorting technology, packing technology, and so forth may be desired, such that manual efforts can be redirected to different tasks.”

Explaining further how the system will benefit the company, Rick Costa, an industry expert from HouseElectric adds  “It (Sparrow) is a system that uses Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags to identify and track objects in a warehouse. Previously, warehouse managers had to rely on manual methods to identify and track objects. This was time-consuming, and it was often inaccurate. Sparrow eliminates these challenges by using RFID tags. Not only does it improve accuracy, but it can also speed up the process.”

The technology is still under experimentation, so the deployment at a large scale will take years. The system, however, is bound to bring operational and structural changes to Amazon.

What Structural and Operational Changes to Expect

With the introduction of a new age of robotics, Amazon will need to restructure its warehouses | The New York Times[2]

Wide-scale automation of the logistics department will demand a rethinking of the existing simple warehouses that the company has built around the world. Amazon recently acquired acres of land for the construction of automated fulfillment centers.

If things go as planned, the company will employ a smaller group of technicians. For a company that is currently facing rebellion and is already under the radar of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha)  for investigation of injuries, it's not an easy job to restructure.

The yellow mechanical arm is currently being tested at a warehouse in Texas. Amazon has higher aspirations for the robot than just “consolidating inventory.” The operations can thus be defined once the company has explored all the possibilities of its usage.

Amazon's Sparrow can pick up things with human-like dexterity | Amazon[3]

What Factors Contributed to the Robot’s Development?

The company as of the beginning of 2022 employed more than 1.6 million people, making it the second largest private US employer after Walmart. This number results from rapid expansion during the pandemic when the workforce more than doubled. Most employees were added to the logistics operations and responsible for delivering packages to the end customers.

The announcement of this robot came as the “Everything Store” was under immense pressure to cut down costs on its online division. In October, the tech group gave a hint that its revenue for the holiday season will go below Wall Street expectations after the company instituted a corporate hiring freeze to stand its ground in the “uncertain economic climate”.

The poor retail performance has led the company to reevaluate its large expansion plans forcing it to stop operating around 50 US warehouses and downsizing from 1.62 mn in March to 1.54 mn in September, as per the data from logistics analyst Marc Wulfraat.

 The tech giant is fighting hard to keep up with the size of angry warehouse workers who have become restless over repetitive jobs, low wages, and unsafe working environments.

Amazon seeks to cast Sparrow as a big step in ensuring workers’ safety by keeping them from performing repetitive tasks that can lead to debilitating musculoskeletal injuries.

“Working with our employees, Sparrow will take on repetitive tasks, enabling our employees to focus their time and energy on other things, while also advancing safety.” the official press release reads.

The relationship between Amazon and workers’ safety has always been complicated, to say the least. The reports focusing on the working conditions paint an ugly picture exposing the company’s deteriorating safety standards.

Amazon’s robotized fulfillment centers show higher injury rates than the non-robotized ones, according to internal Amazon injury data obtained by the newsroom Reveal in 2020. The inspection and analysis conducted post-publication showed that robots-  working tirelessly with no breaks tend to push human workers to function at a pace that reaches hazardous levels of risk.

“Sparrow could similarly speed up the pace of work and lead to greater injuries in the warehouses where it's deployed,” says Mohamed Mire- an Amazon warehouse worker who worked in Minnesota for five years and now helps organize workers there.

Amazon, an organization that runs on replaceable warehouse workers on an hourly basis, has long anticipated, according to a leaked memo back in 2021 that it will eventually run out of people who are willing to join its warehouses —a looming crisis for a business that built its reputation on offering efficient, dependable delivery. Even though the warehouses are mostly automated, Amazon still needs hundreds of thousands of workers to operate alongside the robots.

Kimberly Lane, an Amazon worker supporting the union drive in New York, said, “The biggest issue is wages.” She further added, “Some new hires are starting at $16.35. It’s ludicrous to live on that wage with this cost of living.”

One answer to a labor shortage and cost-cutting is robots. Bot picking, bot packaging, and bot delivery can limit the workload on humans, their demands for pay raises and a better work environment, and of course their existence in Amazon warehouses.

How does Sparrow Impact the Employment Landscape in Warehouse Industry?

Amazon is running out of people who are willing to join its warehouses | Bloomberg[4]

"You can't compete with the robots," declared Mohamed. "They want you to compete with the robots. "

 The announcement of deploying the robot has brought a wave of apprehension among 750,000 US warehouse workers who fear that its capabilities might leave them jobless.

The company, however, ensures that the robot is for the “benefit” of employees, allowing them to engage in less repetitive jobs. It says that “700 new categories” of jobs have been created within the company in the field of Robotics.

“This is the Golden era of Robotics,” says Tye Brady, a chief technologist at Amazon. He further adds that robots are meant to extend human capability by completing meaningful tasks.

 People have believed that widespread technological unemployment is coming for decades “due to our discovery of means of economizing the use of labor outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labor.”

“I just don’t see that at all,” disagrees Brady. With a decade under their belt at Amazon, they have added more than 520,000 derived units and successfully generated over a million jobs. More robots lead to more storage availability, more order fulfillment, and more jobs for people.

“Humans can think, create, and find creative solutions to complex problems. Robots are good at extracting numbers and pulling data, so the need will always be there,” he adds.

A recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics supports Brady’s claim of increasing job numbers. There is little evidence supporting the idea of a new era of machines accentuating the destruction of jobs. Innovation may destroy jobs but can also give life to new ones.

But the pace and scale at which the change is happening might prove counterproductive. In a research conducted by Beth Gutelius and Nik Theodore, the conclusion supported Brady’s theory of the generation of new jobs. Still, they asserted that there is a high probability of employers using methodologies that decrease the skill requirements of jobs to reduce training period and turnover costs. This can lead to stagnation and job insecurity.

The introduction of new technology in warehouses will affect employment status inevitably. The organizations are bound to witness huge productivity gains, the workers, however, will bear the costs of automation. While the workers are constantly under the watch for keeping up with the speed of currently employed robots, the road ahead in painting a better working environment doesn’t look very promising.

The company says that it is providing its workers an opportunity to work in synergy with the new age of robotics by offering them a training course to make them ready to operate the new system, but the skill requirement, and the size of people it is willing to employ remain questionable.

Amazon takes a customer-centric approach and with the company being the world's largest manufacturer of industrial robots, it is unlikely that its robot revolution can take a break any time soon.

Images References :
[1], [3]