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Robots poised to take over warehouse jobs around the globe

By Angus McNeice in London | | Updated: 2017-09-28 00:51

Major e-commerce companies are increasingly looking toward robots and artificial intelligence to manage warehouses and customer orders, and China and the United Kingdom are playing key roles in the robot revolution.

Earlier this year, viral-videos of robots whizzing around Alibaba-owned warehouses in China made the rounds on social media. The bots were designed by Chinese start-up Geek+ to bring goods to workers, saving them from trawling up and down kilometers of racking to complete orders.

China has been the world’s major buyer of industrial robots since 2013, according to the International Federation of Robotics (also known as IFR).

In 2009, the global market for industrial robots extended to 60,000 units. That figure ballooned to 294,000 units in 2016, when China alone ordered 87,000 units.

The IFR forecasts that, by 2020, more than 1.7 million new industrial robots will be installed in factories worldwide.

Joe Gemma, president of the IFR, said: "China is by-far the biggest robot market in the world regarding annual sales and regarding the operational stock. It is the fastest-growing market worldwide. There has never been such a dynamic rise in such a short period of time in any other market."

In the UK, robots began bringing goods to workers in Amazon's warehouses in Dunstable and Doncaster last year. And British online supermarket Ocado has developed some of the world’s most sophisticated machine-led warehouses for grocery goods.

Ocado does not have brick-and-mortar shops. Instead, it takes grocery orders online and delivers produce from a network of distribution centers.

Robots poised to take over warehouse jobs around the globe

Ocado's robots can communicate wirelessly with each other over a 4G network. [Photo provided to]

At Ocado's warehouse in Andover, Hampshire, a hive of stout robots the size of washing machines selects goods for online shoppers, assembling a 50-item order in minutes.

The robots communicate with each other as they move across a grid of grocery crates, like rooks along a chess board.

Ocado is in discussion with supermarkets in China and elsewhere that are interested in purchasing its hardware and software, which is collectively known as the Ocado Smart Platform.

Paul Clarke, chief technology officer at Ocado Technology, said: "The platform has been designed from day one to offer large bricks-and-mortar retailers around the world a shortcut to moving online. We’ve been talking to grocery retailers around the world in almost every continent. In that mix, China certainly features."

E-commerce sales are set to grow by 23 percent this year, and for the first time will account for one-tenth of total retail sales worldwide, according to US market research company eMarketer. Last year, almost half of all global online retail sales were made in China.

Clarke said Ocado will also look to deliver the platform to a wide range of companies because the technology is not limited to grocery orders.

Ocado's main warehouse in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, reveals a timeline of the company's technological evolution.

In the oldest section of the warehouse, a computer program indicates to employees what goods are needed for an order. Pickers then select items manually.In a newer section, a vast network of conveyer belts and cranes controlled by an algorithm deliver goods directly to workers who sort them into bags.

The Ocado Smart Platform in Andover is the latest iteration of the company's move toward full automation, though humans pickers are still needed to put the finishing touches to orders.

At Ocado's robotics lab in Hatfield, engineers are working on robotic hands that are capable of handling delicate goods without damaging them.

Robots poised to take over warehouse jobs around the globe

Ocado is designing robots to help workers. [Photo provided to]

The company is also trialing driverless grocery delivery vehicles, in partnership with UK-based tech company Oxbotica.

Nathan Wrench, head of industrial and energy projects at Cambridge Consultants, which worked with Ocado on the smart platform, said: "What we are seeing is a period of extraordinary change. There is mad innovation happening across the value chain. Autonomous trucks and vans are being spoken about. We are also seeing robotics being used for other elements of manual handling within warehouses, such as getting goods into vehicles."

In the UK, the rise of warehouse robots has led to employment concerns. A study conducted by the Institute for Public Policy Research estimates robots will replace one-in-three UK jobs during the next 20 years. It has called on the UK government to provide job training to low-skilled workers who are at risk of losing their employment to machines.

However, Clarke points out that, as Ocado’s operation has grown, the company has employed more people in its warehouses. And Wrench argues that many companies in the UK are struggling to find enough employees to undertake certain tasks.

"There is this fanciful idea that robots are going to come along and take jobs away and there is going to be a crisis of employment. That's absolutely not the picture as we see it," Wrench said. "Every one of the customers that we are talking to in this industry is talking about the difficulties of employment. They can’t get enough people to do the boring jobs or the backbreaking jobs. People are always migrating to the higher-value tasks."

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