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Inside an Amazon Warehouse, Robots’ Ways Rub Off on Humans

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The robots have raised the average picker’s productivity from around 100 items per hour to what Mr. Long and others have said is a target of around 300 or 400, though the numbers vary across teams and facilities. The robots help explain why Amazon managed to ship more items than ever during last year’s holiday season with about 20 percent fewer seasonal workers than the year before. (Amazon said another reason was that it was focused more on permanent hiring in 2018.)

Robots have also made the job far more repetitive. Unlike pickers in manual warehouses, the pickers on Staten Island have almost no relief from plucking goods off shelves, other than their breaks. A picker named Shawn Chase said he motivated himself by competing with a friend in a different part of the warehouse to see who could earn the higher productivity ranking.

“Last week I was 41st in the building,” he said. “This week I’m trying to be top 10.” The company has taken this logic even further in a handful of warehouses, The Washington Post has reported, creating video-game interfaces that allow workers to accumulate points and badges for completing these tasks.

Amazon has periodically fueled rumors that it plans to fully automate picking in the near future, even sponsoring a contest for engineers who develop robotic picking arms. But the truth is that human pickers will be around for years.

According to Russ Meller, who runs a group that designs warehouses at the engineering consulting firm Fortna, it would be hard for a robotic picking arm to navigate the shelving units that carry goods around Amazon’s warehouse. The shelves are too large a target, and the bins may be too cramped or too deep. “They really complicated it for the robot,” said Mr. Meller, whose firm has not designed warehouses for Amazon.

In effect, Amazon calculated that there was so much productivity to be gained from reducing the millions of miles its workers walk each year that it was better off finding robots well suited to moving goods all those miles, not worrying whether the system would later be compatible with robotic pickers.

The difficulty of automating pickers puts pressure on the humans to become more productive. “We try to eliminate any wasted movement,” LeVar Kellogg, a picker who trains other pickers at an Amazon facility near Chicago, told me. “If you have one second that’s adding to the process, it doesn’t seem like a lot. But if you do that 1,000 times a day, that’s when it starts adding up.”



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