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Warned of labor shortages, Amazon shows off latest warehouse robots


Amazon shows off its latest warehouse automation as a leaked report suggests the company faces workforce shortages.

Amazon says that its fully autonomous mobile robot, called Proteus, is equipped to navigate around human employees safely – a historically difficult task. The company says that Proteus, unlike its predecessors, works and moves around employees without a need to be confined to restricted areas.

A combination of “advanced safety, perception, and navigation technology” allows the robot to move freely around the facilities and carry out assigned tasks. In a video presentation, Proteus robots are seen carrying things around – sometimes at speed – and stopping when a human steps into a green beam in front of them.

Alongside Proteus, Amazon announced other warehouse innovations, including a Cardinal robotic arm that can identify, lift, and sort packages weighing up to 50 pounds and a computerized identification system based on machine learning technology that could simplify the parcel scanning process.

Labor pressures

The latest additions to warehouse automation are meant to let human employees “focus on more rewarding work” by releasing them from some manual tasks. However, high workforce turnover has led to warnings Amazon could soon face acute labor shortages if it does not change its employment practices.

A leaked internal document, first reported by Recode, says that Amazon “will deplete the available labor supply in the US network by 2024” if it continues “business as usual”. California is particularly vulnerable, with its Inland Empire area east of Los Angeles mentioned as facing the most imminent risk of running out of the workforce. The region serves a pool of 20m potential customers and is a major shipping hub.

Phoenix metro area in Arizona, Memphis in Tennessee, and Wilmington in Delaware were also forecasted to face similar pressures. According to the Recode report, this has already led to a reversal of some workforce policies in Pheonix warehouses.

Mindset turnaround?

Staff attrition is notoriously high in Amazon. The leaked memo said it was 123% in 2019 before jumping to 159% in 2020. The US national average in transportation, warehousing, and utilities was 46% and 59%, respectively. The company still employs 1m people in the US, making it America’s second-largest private employer.

Initially, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has reportedly welcomed high workforce churn, driven by a grueling work environment and high injury rates. However, in his latest letter to shareholders, he promised Amazon would strive to become “Earth’s best employer” and “do a better job” for its employees, including solutions that improve workplace safety.

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While the latest automation efforts point that it is taking steps in that direction, Amazon remains resistant to grassroots efforts to better workplace conditions – and fiercely opposes its workers’ attempts to unionize. Only one Amazon labor union has so far been formed in the US – in the company's Staten Island warehouse in New York. It was formed after Amazon was defeated in a court challenge in April.


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