Four years ago I wrote about how the supply chain was approaching a tipping point in which autonomous robots will become necessary to sustain businesses, and today there is strong evidence that is actually happening. Right now autonomous robots are making their mark in industry, similar to how computers developed in the 1950s and 1960s were put to work on key tasks in business. We’re still in the early days of this transformation, and the total impact to business and society has not been realized, but it’s the most exciting time ever for robotics.
Autonomous robots are very different from the robots that have been working on factory assembly lines for decades. The difference is that autonomous robots can perceive the world for themselves and make decisions on their own. Driverless cars, for instance, can see the world around them and make decisions about when to change lanes, or when to stop unexpectedly. Autonomous robots working in a warehouse are able to decide on their own to drive around a person standing in an aisle or they can determine which item on a shelf to pick.
It’s well known that several recent innovations have made it possible now for autonomous robots to enter the workplace. Commodity sensors have enabled robots to see the world in full 3D, providing data at speeds comparable to human vision and allowing robots to see subtle changes in their surrounding environment. In addition, the availability of high power embedded computers at low-cost and low-energy consumption have made autonomy economically viable. More importantly, our growing knowledge of perception, motion planning, and control algorithms have allowed these robots to handle themselves in loosely structured environments. Previously, robots were mostly blind and only able to execute a simple set of movements, like an animatronic character at an amusement park.
These technology changes are somewhat old news, the real story now is about adoption, because contrary to popular belief, there still aren’t that many autonomous robots out there. How many autonomous robots did you see on your last trip to the grocery store, or the last time you were in the office? Probably zero. But a few macro trends are now driving the adoption of autonomous robots in the supply chain industry. The baby boomer generation (many that were once taught to seek careers in factories or manual labor) are now starting to retire. Meanwhile, e-commerce is continuing to climb at a steady 15% per year. That means we have more consumers demanding goods through the supply chain at the same time that manual workers are largely leaving the industry. Additionally, we’ve seen a rise in domestic manufacturing which is more attractive for manual workers and requires businesses to offer supply chain workers better wages and more engaging work to stay successful. One notable case was when Amazon raised its minimum wage to 15 dollars an hour.
The fact is that we are experiencing an evolution of the idea of work. Technological and economic forces are changing how work gets done and the new gig economy is changing who does it. Rather than a traditional employee-employer relationship, there exists a growing continuum of tasks and free-agent talent in the future of work. Deloitte Insights The Evolution of Work describes it as “a multi-channel workforce strategy that leverages a mix of traditional full-time employees, joint ventures, contractors, freelancers, crowds, and robots.” The younger generations are more technically adept and they are better off working smarter, not harder. This is creating a global shift in workforce demographics.
Even the question of what work looks like is coming under examination. The constantly evolving marketplace and the ever-exploding e-commerce industry are forcing businesses to examine new ways to sustain work. R. David Edelman of MIT’s Project on Technology, Economy, and National Security says “…it could be imperative for businesses to rethink their approaches to the how, who, and what of work in fundamental, perhaps even transformative ways.”
Due to the mundane and repetitive nature of the work necessary in warehouses, the supply chain industry will be one of the first to reap the benefits of the autonomous robot revolution. Thus far, autonomous robots have made some key in-roads in the distribution and logistics industries. For the first time, there is an inversion in the marketplace in that there are now more jobs available than there are people available to fill them across the entire economy but particularly in this industry. That means that the adoption rate will inevitably go up. Moreover, there is a growing need to increase labor productivity, which “…is crucial for GDP growth, it’s crucial for being internationally competitive, and it’s crucial for individual workers to be able to work in jobs that are less dirty, dangerous, or demeaning.”
Autonomous robots have arrived. The rate of attempts—and oftentimes failures—at developing solutions to business problems are increasing, and there is an overall sense that we are getting closer to a transformational moment when robots are everywhere. Those companies willing to take a chance on automation early will reap the most benefits and have a true chance to disrupt the competition. That’s why we are excited at IAM Robotics to be at the forefront of the autonomous robot revolution.