Greetings to our new owners - robots - chapter two


At present, less than ten percent of the American labor force is employed in production. When the plants closed, the laid-off employees were looking for work in fast food cafes and large retail stores, where pay and benefits are much less attractive. And even more often, even these jobs disappear. Shop windows are quickly disappearing due to the online market. McDonald's presents “digital order kiosks”, which are expected to replace cashiers at fifty-five hundred restaurants by the end of 2018. Meanwhile, companies such as Uber and Google are investing heavily in autonomous driving technology, believing that such funds will change transportation. In August 2016, Uber acquired Otto, a San Francisco-based startup that sells technologies designed to automate long-haul freight. In the United States, there are almost two million truck drivers, most of whom are men and do not have a college degree; their payment accounts for a third of the cost in the trucking industry in the amount of seven hundred billion dollars. Automation also threatens construction; in the New York firm, a laser-controlled system was introduced that can stack from eight hundred to twelve hundred bricks per day, which is twice as large as the average bricklayer.

For low-skilled workers, warehouse work seemed very attractive. Even if Target or Sam's Club needs fewer people, a network of warehouses is still needed to store and ship goods. Amazon is the world's largest online store, currently it has more than ninety thousand employees in its distribution centers in the US and plans to hire tens of thousands more. Workers still assemble at the warehouse, using their dexterous fingers and brains to pull out soap, coffee and toothpaste tubes and millions of other products from the shelves and place them in boxes, completing online orders.

But the same factors that make warehouses attractive to workers made them an attractive automation target. In 2012, Amazon spent almost eight hundred million dollars on the purchase of a robotic company, Kiva, which makes robots that can drive factory floors and move high racks with shelves weighing up to seven hundred and fifty pounds. According to a Deutsche Bank study, Amazon can save twenty-two million dollars a year by using Kiva machines in the same warehouse. All in all, they can save billions. With such an attractive prospect, Amazon is trying to find or develop systems that can replace collectors of people. When in June he announced plans to purchase the Whole Foods supermarket chain, rumors quickly began that the company intends to automate distribution centers and their stores.

However, simply automating the old warehouse is an intermediate measure, as is clear from a visit to Symbotic. The private company, based in an industrial park outside of Boston, sells fully automated warehouse systems to large retail chains, and new warehouses resemble old ones, much like Tesla resembles Model T. The company's twenty thousand square foot testing center is a giant interconnected cube green, yellow and white steel shelving, walkways and cameras that extend almost from the floor to the ceiling. There are no passes for elevators, and there are no stations for humans. Inside the matrix there is no place for people.

Robotic hands unpack the packs of tomato sauce, salsa, toilet paper and soda and place them on a blue conveyor belt along which they are transferred to the storage chamber. A flotilla of small green robots that look like race cars in a Pixar film comes to life and unfolds inside the camera on selected tracks, making a loud hum. They collect food packaging and place them on the shelves until they are needed. Then the algorithm sends the small car bots back and takes the right products.

“It absolutely changes the concept of a warehouse,” said Chris Gahagan, CEO of Symbotic. Chris is a muscular guy with dirty blond hair tucked in and looking like a guide to take tourists on free guided tours of Belize. “Now you can build a smaller warehouse, or make more storage, or serve more stores from the same warehouse. It gives you tremendous flexibility. ”

Gahagan was hired in 2015 by the Symbotic owner, Richard B. Cohen, a billionaire and C & S owner. Cohen wanted a system that would make his grocery stores more efficient; then he realized that he could sell it to other retailers. Symbotic says that now he has more orders than you can quickly complete. The automated system, notes Gahagan, provides greater efficiency than it seems at first glance. Since it can store more products in a smaller space, companies may have more compact warehouses closer to their outlets, with less transportation costs. Robots do not need light to work, so the warehouse can use, according to Gahagan, thirty-five percent less energy than normal, while reducing the cost of workers by eighty percent. Many warehouse companies manage their business based on working time to minimize overtime pay. But the automated system could work 24 hours a day. A typical system costs about fifty million dollars, Gahagan said, but according to him, on average for four and a half years it will pay off in full.

We walked past the sign “Safety is our first priority” on the wall, an artifact from the time when there were frequent injuries to workers in such a place, and climbed the steel stairs. All the cars around us moved, elegantly and tirelessly performing their tasks.


"People, if this is not government intervention, I do not know what it is."

“You start looking for all the expenses you can avoid,” he told me. “This is phenomenal. Thus, as soon as one company minimizes its expenses, it makes it more competitive. ” This instantly puts pressure on competitors who follow her lead. “You can’t just stand still - this is ineffective,” Gahagan continued. “The range in your store is not so good, you pay more for work, more for shipping. If there was a new startup in retail, it would start here. ” He pointed to an empty, cold space.

The most important work of a person at Symbotic is the “system operator”, which is akin to the work of a dispatcher when you sit behind screens all day and see that everything is working correctly. It took a couple of human workers to help unload and load the trucks when they arrived, and went with the inventory, and the four mechanics were kept on staff to service the bots when they needed it (because “everything happens”). In general, the average system needs eight or nine people per shift - only a small part of the staff of a traditional warehouse.

Gahagan assured me that most workplaces in warehouses are undesirable and difficult to fill. A typical worker can raise thousands of pounds of goods daily and complete the equivalent of a marathon five or six days a week. In winter, the warehouse can freeze, and in the summer months it is hot. “Their turnover is huge,” he said. With the help of a robotic version, one highly skilled person sits at the console and types commands, and his salary is almost twice as much as in manual work.

Gahagan reluctantly talks about Symbotic customers, because they are not inclined to attract attention because of their interest in automated systems. “We have a certain sensitivity ... in the current political situation,” he said. "This is just the reality of our time." But the Wall Street Journal reported that Target is creating a Symbotic repository and that Walmart has installed several of their repositories. Gahagan said that the “red” giant, Coca-Cola, uses two Symbotic distribution centers. (“It was not easy with the unions, but they made it work.”) Now, he said, their main rival, the blue giant, Pepsi, wants to try their system.

“If someone can open a warehouse with automation and sell at a lower price, everyone else will follow,” said Gahagan. “Consumers choose by price, so the value of the supply chain is very important. Walmart created a very efficient supply chain, which is why he was able to offer the lowest prices in his stores, and everyone else had to compete. And now you see that this happens with automation. ”

He noted that technological innovation in one way or another has been happening for a hundred years. Tractors replaced manual plows, but now we were able to produce many more products, he said; ATMs replaced cashiers, but banks still use hundreds of thousands of people. “Imagine the epoch when it was necessary to make a call, so that someone would plug the wire into the outlet for you,” he said. “Work on the switch was not bad. Every time technology develops, yes, individual people are forced to adapt. But the standard of living has grown. I would prefer to live in today's world than in a world without computers, without cell phones, without elevators. ”

We went to the platform where we saw the path on which mobile robots were lined up, waiting for a call. From time to time, one of them turned on his engine and went off like a small rocket. Gahagan with love and awe looked at his army of robots. "Depending on who will be next in the White House, we will have a payment of fifteen dollars per hour or twenty dollars per hour?" Said Gagagan. “I vote for a minimum salary of thirty dollars an hour. It will be fantastic marketing for us. ”

If a fully automated warehouse is structurally different from its predecessors, what about a fully automated factory? Gahagan noted that other countries are more aggressively introducing industrial robotics than the United States. I saw the scale of this during a recent trip to China. One afternoon, I took a bus in downtown Shanghai and headed south along the Huangpu River, away from the noodle shops and the glittering luxury fashion shopping centers. About half an hour later, I reached a huge, low building, where hundreds of bicycles were parked in the covered part. Inside, I was greeted by Jerry Wong, CEO of the Cambridge Industries Group, which manufactures telecommunications equipment - more than three million units per month - for companies such as Huawei, Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent. Wong grew up in Beijing, studied electrical engineering at MIT and worked at Bell Labs for fifteen years. He founded the CIG in 2005, and says that the company produces between two and three million products every month. He had a slight resemblance to a gnome, a shock of black hair, thick glasses in the seventies style, and evil laughter.

Wong sat with his back to a wall of dozens of screens, which depicted various performance indicators and video of the production floor in real time, where workers and an increasing number of robots were engaged in the manufacture of printed circuit boards. (I was there on a trip to a non-profit organization called the Exchange Foundation in China and the United States). He quickly demonstrated the lack of sentimentality with which many businessmen in China approach the issue of automation. In CIG, he is trying to replace as many human workers as possible with robots, he explained. Three years ago, the company employed thirty-five hundred people at the factory. Two years ago there were twenty five hundred. Today it is eighteen hundreds. Over the same period, he said proudly, the company's release doubled.

“Labor costs in China are increasing and doubling every few years,” Wong explained. "We are actually overcoming difficulties, increasing our efficiency through automation." For Chinese enterprises, Wong said, economical production should include industrial automation, and they could not do it fast enough.

Much of China’s economic power over the past two decades has come from its position as the main production in the world, but in the past few years its growth has begun to slow. China has never been a particularly convenient place for western companies to produce sneakers, t-shirts and widgets; the main factor was cheap labor. With the sharp rise in Chinese wages, production in it is becoming less attractive, and the Chinese government allocates enormous resources to turn the country into the capital of world automation.

When we put on robes, hairnets and shoe covers to enter a clean production area, Wong elaborated on China’s need for quick automation. According to him, the shortage of labor is aggravated by the long-term policy of one child. And since the population became richer and the cost of living higher, fewer people were willing to engage in productive activities.


"Try to ignore the smell of hot dogs."

“We are pushing all industries towards full automation,” said Wong. And the staff seemed to agree. “Probably they don’t care, not like during the Industrial Revolution in Europe, when they could go and destroy cars.” It was the old days. ”

“In any case, they leave,” said Rose Hu, a brisk, harsh woman who works as a senior vice president of marketing for CIG. “Every Chinese New Year, almost eighty percent of people, they will not return. You need new ones.

We passed through the airlock under pressure, which destroyed all the dust that was on us, and entered the clean part of the factory. The ordered rows of white cars, serviced by the workers, in hats, which the chef usually had, moved the printed circuit boards along the conveyor. Robotic arms, outside the windows, performed most of the work, while workers performed tasks that required fine motor skills, for example, they inserted tiny components. From time to time a small robotic trolley rode down the aisle, playing Mozart to warn people that it was approaching. (Until recently, most industrial robots were separated from workers by steel railings to protect workers from injury. Now there are robots that can work together with people without harming them.) Two workers hovered above the workstation and clamped the connectors into the holes in a line of printed circuit boards before sending them into a glass-enclosed chamber, where robotic arms gathered them together.

“There used to be thirteen people here. Now we only have one or two, ”said Hu, pointing to two workers, a young man and a woman. “We used to use people for rations. We used to have sixty-three people to do one thing, but since last year we need only sixteen people. ”

Printed circuit boards continued their way through the automatic conveyor belt. Other robots placed stickers on the boxes before a group of people moved inside to place the printed circuit boards in the boxes along with the packaging materials. “For some reason, closing the box is difficult to automate,” said Hu, shaking her head.

Every time I asked what happened to the laid-off workers, Hu and Wong dismissed the question, marveling at the predictable direction of my thoughts. Hu insisted that factory workers would simply find a place in the economy, for example, in the services sector. “We have already gone through several industrial revolutions - and we still have work!” She said. “I think that people who do not understand this did not survive the industrial revolution. The world is changing. You must constantly improve yourself to keep up. ”

Later, in a room with surveillance monitors, Wong showed me a slideshow on the history of industrial revolutions. The first stage began around 1800, when the steam engine went into operation and took place in the UK, France and Germany. The second phase, in 1900, when electricity appeared and was concentrated in the USA, Great Britain and Germany. The third was the revolution in information technology, which began in 2000 and was concentrated mainly in the USA, Germany, Japan and Korea. Wong's case was that China planned to be at the forefront of the fourth phase, which would focus on the integration of robotics and artificial intelligence. Finally, he picked up a slide that said: “The Future: The Dark Factory.”

“You don't need workers, and you turn off the lights,” Wong chuckled. "Only when an American journalist arrives, do we turn on the light."

Stephanie Telleks, an engineer from Brown University, grew up in a conservative Catholic family in the suburbs of Rochester, which borders Lake Ontario, where, according to her, "everyone has a house and a yard, and no crime." Her father was an accountant, her mother was a teacher in the center of Rochester. Tellex became interested in computers in childhood. Her father gave her an old DOS 486 when she was in high school; her aunt, a programmer, gave her books with simple coding exercises. MIT , , . (« , - »). PhD 2010 . , «The Jetsons», , .

« , », – . « , , , , . , .

, , . , , 2016 . , , . - , , . , , . , , , . 4,2 – – , .

2015 , , , , , , . « », , , , , , . , , , . « – , , , », – . , ? « ?» , . « , , . , , ».


«, , ».

. , . , , , . , , , ; « », , , , , , , , .

, , . « , », – . « , – . – , . , . , ».

Steelcase , . -; , , , . . 2009 , , Steelcase . 2016 , «Switch» . Switch – , , Disney eBay.

, Steelcase, , , , , . « , », – , . « . . , . .

, - . , , . « , , – , . « , , . - , . , . : « ». , : « , , . .» . « , -, . ».

. , , , , : « , . Point. -, , . , -. , . «, , , , NAFTA», – . «, , , , ».

, . . , , , , . , , . . . « , , , , , , , », – . « , , « ».

, , , – , . . , . Steelcase. , - , , . , : « ».

, . , – , , , . « », – . , Steelcase , , , , . , « ».

, , , - . , , . « , », – , . « , - , ». , , . . , .

« , , - , ?» – . « , . .»



All Articles