Will 2018 Be The Year Of The Robot For E-Commerce?

With our love of all things tech, it’s no surprise that circuit board and electronic component manufacturing revenue in the U.S. has reached new heights. The need for printed circuit board assemblies has of course increased, what with all those new gadgets in development, with many businesses saying they require these services anywhere from five to 10 times on an annual basis by the end of 2011.

Since then, the e-commerce sector has grown even more — to the point where Amazon isn’t the only one relying on high-tech robots to fulfill orders. Companies are even having to expand their warehouses to accommodate for all the orders coming in (and the robots needed to pack and ship them). This begs the question: will 2018 be the year of the robot?

According to experts, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Online shopping is no longer the exception but the rule for countless consumers. In fact, U.S. e-commerce annual revenue is currently hovering at about $423.3 billion, and it keeps on climbing. Convenience often wins out, which has prompted companies like Amazon to set and exceed delivery standards for their customers. According to roboticist Ken Goldberg of UC Berkley, Amazon and other online retailers deliver their orders at rates that near 500 packages per second and counting. And the robots they use to fulfill those orders do a lot more now than lift heavy objects; they’re becoming more advanced and collaborative by the day.

Bob Doyle, director of communications at the Association for Advancing Automation, told Design News: “Companies using robots are realizing better and faster return on investments, and I think that’s why the robotics is growing rapidly. We will break records this year as we have every year since the end of the great recession. Robots are less expensive.”

Using robots makes products and their delivery cheaper for both company and customer, but some worry about the implications of a robotic workforce. Amazon, for its part, doesn’t want to replace humans with robots — at least, not yet. But those who work in entry-level positions are the most vulnerable for AI and robot replacement. Increased worker training can ensure that automation creates opportunities for human employees. Back in 2012, Amazon started a program called Career Choice that pays up to 95% of college tuition for its workers who want to go back to school to train for in-demand fields. Since then, they’ve expanded the opportunity to all hourly employees who have been with the company for a year or more. Since the program’s launch, 14,000 employees have participated in these classes, and the company aims to double its participation by 2020.

The prevalence of robots will certainly impact job opportunities in the future, but it’s also had an effect on the warehouses these companies use for their daily operations. Over the last five years, the number of U.S. warehouses has risen by 6.8%. Warehouses are also getting bigger and taller, with the average warehouse completed this year measuring 188,000 square feet (more than double the size of warehouses in 2011) and with ceiling heights increasing by 21% since that time. Since e-commerce provides the opportunity for seemingly endless stock — much more than you’d find for a brick-and-mortar retailer — companies simply need more room. They even require thicker concrete flooring to support the robots and other equipment needed for fulfillment.

And now, it isn’t just corporate giants like Amazon who can use these artificially intelligent bots to see results. As Doyle explained to Design News, because robots now cost less and are easier to configure, smaller can get in on the action without a huge financial risk.

“Larger companies have been automating for a long time, but now the small- and mid-size companies are using automation,” said Doyle. “Investments in robotics is changing a lot of these businesses, allowing them to compete and hire more employees with better jobs. Those companies are just getting started. There are still a lot of small- and mid-size companies that haven’t started yet.”

One thing’s for sure: the allure of the bot is still quite strong. And whether we like it or not, AI seems to be here to stay.

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