Amazon says that human workers are set to stay in its warehouses

On the surface this may be good or bad news depending on your point of view

Amazon’s Director of Robotics Fulfilment, Scott Andersen has recently refuted a suggestion that the world’s largest online retailer will run fully automated warehouses any time soon. He also revealed the company is at least 10 years away from fully automating the processing of a single order picked by a warehouse worker.

On the surface this may be good or bad news depending on your point of view. Amazon employs over 125,000 full-time warehouse staff in the US alone and has had a record 850,000 number of seasonal applications this year. It has also raised its minimum wage for warehouse workers. So far so good. But if full automation is possible in 10 years, surely this will lead to warehouse employees and recruiters counting down to an increasingly redundant future over the next decade. Or will they?

Whilst full automation may technically be possible in the future, warehouse employees and HR professionals have one major advantage on their side: the human factor.

Derek Jones, Amazon Global Director of Environment, gave us a hint this month that the human touch will endure. “Just imagine if you want bananas. I want my bananas to be firm, others like their bananas to be ripe. How do you get a robot to choose that?” he said.

A deeper analysis of automation over human operation throws up some interesting issues. Looking from the outside in, it appears that an automated, robotic warehouse would be a significantly cheaper business to run. However, the reality is less black and white.

Automated warehouses use fewer people, but need expensive resources to maintain, are prone to critical software bugs, mechanical issues and are not always flexible enough to change significantly from an initial complex design. Considerable time and cost are also involved in searching for, recruiting and employing specialist technical implementation teams. Even afterwards the cost continues to rise.

Sarah Hobbs, Director at SL7 Consulting UK highlighted the issue this week, suggesting that once implemented, there will be an on-going requirement for expert technical teams in managing and running the systems. She added that such teams are already a scarce and costly resource with the current skills shortage likely to compound the issue.

People-based warehouses are not without issue of course: sickness, holidays, changes in motivation and human error. But, they are a flexible and relatively cheap resource where issues can be managed quickly and efficiently, given effective recruitment, training and HR support.

So with companies such as Amazon increasing volumes and focusing on automation, there may be cause for optimism among recruiters and workers alike. In the coming decade, it is likely that automation will continue to suffer issues of bottlenecks in automated warehouse capability, major design changes, disruption during new system implementation and the need to integrate processes with ever-changing customer needs and emotions.

This leads, however, to one inescapable fact: having enough of the right people on-board means changes can be made quickly and effectively. And, as for understanding and predicting the needs and emotions of customers – well, as Amazon says, only a fellow human can do that, right?

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