Are Robots the Solution to a Tight Labor Market?

Amazon could have more robot workers than human employees by 2030.

February 07, 2023

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Robots could soon outnumber human workers at some of the world’s biggest companies, including Amazon, reports CNBC. Cathie Wood, portfolio manager at Ark Invest, told CNBC that Amazon’s use of automated robots will dramatically change the company’s workforce in the coming years.

“Amazon is adding about a thousand robots a day. ... If you compare the number of robots Amazon has to the number of employees, it’s about a third. And we believe that by the year 2030 Amazon can have more robots than employees,” Wood told CNBC.

“We are just at the dawn of the robotics age. And I would say artificial intelligence and battery technology are all a part of that movement as well,” she added.

Wood said that the use of robots will seep into other industries as well, including manufacturing, as improving technology and falling costs speed up the transition.

“If you look at the cost declines, which drive all of our models ... for every cumulative doubling in the number of robots produced, the cost declines are in the 50-60% range,” she told CNBC.

This past quarter, Amazon introduced Sparrow, a robotic system that can detect, select and handle individual products in Amazon’s inventory.

“[Sparrow is] a major technological advancement that allows employees to shift their time and energy to other tasks,” wrote Amazon in a statement. “Sparrow also improves health and safety by reducing the repetitive tasks done by employees.”

Last year, Amazon opened YOW3 in Ontario, which is the company’s most advanced robotics facility in Canada and one of five of its kind globally. The warehouse has three robots designs to enhance employee safety and productivity: ROBIN, a robotic arm that sorts packages; RWC4, another robotic arm that sorts totes; and Kemit, a trolley that tows empty totes throughout the facility.

Not all of Amazon’s robotic ventures are progressing, however. Last fall, Amazon announced it was scaling back the development of Scout, its autonomous delivery robot. The e-commerce giant said it was stopping home-delivery testing of the robot, which launched three years ago.

“During our Scout limited field test, we worked to create a unique delivery experience but learned through feedback that there were aspects of the program that weren’t meeting customers’ needs,” Amazon spokesperson Alisa Carroll told Bloomberg. “As a result, we are ending our field tests and reorienting the program.”

Robot labor is growing amid the country’s own labor shortage. Robot orders for workplaces increased 40% during the first quarter of 2022 compared with the first quarter of 2021, which was a record amount.

Walmart recently transformed a Texas distribution center into a high-tech automation center. The multi-million-dollar renovation now includes a combination of AI-powered software systems, robotics and automation to sort, store, retrieve and pack merchandise onto pallets that are then shipped to stores.

In the convenience store industry, 7-Eleven is testing self-driving robots to deliver orders in Los Angeles through a partnership with Serve Robotics. In 2021, the c-store chain launched autonomous delivery in Mountain View, California, via robotics company Nuro.

Kum & Go just announced it is deploying a floor-cleaning robot at each of its more than 400 locations, and Love’s recently introduced a second robotic smoothie maker in its Corning, California, location after adding the machine to its Williams, California, store in September.

In the restaurant industry, Miso Robotics’ Flippy 2 robot is automating the process of deep-frying potatoes, onion rings and other foods, which can help speed up drive-through times for fast-food restaurants. Last year, Panera Bread tested an automated coffee machine by Miso Robotics that uses AI to monitor coffee volume and temperature.

Chipotle also invested in Hyphen, a foodservice platform designed to help restaurant owners, operators and chefs move their businesses forward by automating kitchen operations. The company's first product, Makeline, is an automated system that uses advanced robotics and a customized operating system to make and fulfill orders.

NACS explored AI and machine learning applications for the c-store industry, especially in foodservice, in “Welcome to an Intelligent 2022” in the January 2022 issue.