Caught On Tape: How The Robots Are Taking Over Amazon

Over the past few years, as Amazon's distribution network has grown at a near-exponential pace, so has its workforce. As the chart below shows, starting in 2010 and continuing through the third quarter, Amazon has seen a staggering increase in its mostly part-time employment: from 28,300 to over 306,000.

However, always seeking ways to cut a few basis points from its razor thin retail margins, Jeff Bezos has discovered that many, if not all, of these part-time laborers, minimum wage as they may be, are expendable, and the company is actively growing its robotic "workforce" in preparation for the moment when most of those 300,000+ workers become fully redundant.

As the Seattle Times reports, Amazon now has some 45,000 robots across 20 fulfillment centers. That’s a bigger headcount than the armed forces of the Netherlands. It’s also a 50% increase from last year’s holiday season, when the company had 30,000 robots working alongside 230,000 humans. For now, the growth rate is keeping pace with that of human additions: from Q4 of 2015 through Q3 of 2016, Amazon reported a 46%, 12-month increase on average in staffers. However, as the pace of carbon-based employment eventually plateaus, that of new robot recruits will only continue to rise.

As the Times notes, the surge in Amazon’s robots showcases the company’s love for automation. In 2012 the company bought Kiva Systems, a Boston-area robotics firm that invented the flat, toaster-like warehouse robots that now populate Amazon’s warehouses. There are also other kinds of automata, such as arms that carry pallets.

For now, the 300K+ workers are mostly safe as much of the stowing and picking of items, which require fine motor skills and discernment, is done by human brains and hands. That is changing, however, as robots become increasingly more sophisticated.

“We’ve changed, again, the automation, the size, the scale many times, and we continue to learn and grow there,” Amazon Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky said of the robots in a conference call last April. The executive said he couldn’t point to any “general trends” in the adoption of robotics, because some fulfillment centers are clearly “fully outfitted” in robots and “some don’t for economic reasons — maybe the volume’s not perfect for robot volume.” However, as minimum wages continue creeping higher, the "economic reasons" to boost robotic volumes will dominate, and most if not all fulfillment centers will become "fully outfitted."

Of course, warehouse automation is just a part of Amazon's grand vision of maximizing logistical and supply-chain efficiencies, as well as eventually doing away with bothersome paychecks for employees. Several weeks ago, Amazon announced that it had made its first automated drone delivery in the UK. More recently, the company obtained a patent for an "airborne fulfillment center utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles for item delivery", i.e., a giant flying drone mothership zeppelin warehouse. 

By now, it is becoming clear that Bezos will not stop until Amazon is one giant, automated, and fully self-contained system, along the lines of the following video showcasing how early-generation Kiva robots have already displaced thousands of human workers.  Within a few years, expect all of Amazon's warehouses to look virtually the same.