Machine Learning x Robots in Operations - Replacing Labour?


Automatons from Nimble Robotics help fill orders at Puma North America’s warehouse in Torrance, Calif.

With labour shortages concerning the US, some companies are turning to automation for the manual tasks that robots could aid.

Machine Learning is a field that has fascinated me to such an extent that I started to pursue it as soon as I heard the word Artificial Intelligence some coding years down the line and using AWS, I realised it’s something that I want myself to forever be associated with. But weren’t these robots just in the laboratories? Machine Learning just in front of your screen a few years back? Thanks to labour shortage, you have them at your place, the warehouses instead of humans! Let’s cut short and take a look!

Businesses use software-powered robotic arms to sort clothing and e-commerce parcels, even back your daily loaf of bread and industrial supplies. Don’t worry. Experts say tech will not replace human workers anytime soon. But they’re becoming sophisticated! How? The usage of Computer Vision - the ability of a computer to differentiate an object from another, the same technology that Tesla uses to drive its cars.

But is it mainstream? Well, Puma SE’s division Puma North America Inc., is using several robotic arms to assemble orders of clothing and shoes at a distribution centre in California. Whilst the company plans to install more robots at another site outside Indianapolis. The tech solutions provider is Nimble Robotics Inc. whose customers include the likes of Best Buy and Victoria’s Secret.

The robot performs with 99% accuracy and uses sensors like cameras, grippers and Artificial Intelligence, a project many electronic engineers might have developed for their final year projects but couldn’t make it mainstream. If the robot misses out, we have a manual operator taking care of the bit.

“I believe automation is the future,” Mr Leibbrandt said. “That doesn’t mean we reduce manpower … It’s pretty much a labour shortage which we face.” Helmut Leibbrandt is Puma’s Senior Vice President of the supply chain for Americas.

Should you be worried that automation is taking off?


Here’s an infographic from McKinsey showing the statistic

Automation ranges across the world, especially in technologically advanced Japan.

SB Logistics Corp. and SoftBank Robotics Corp., both companies of SoftBank Group Corp. of Japan, constructed a highly automated fulfilment facility in Ichikawa, Japan, last year. The facility picks and packs commodities including electronics, home goods, and canned foods using robots technology from SoftBank-backed company Berkshire Grey Inc. Berkshire Grey’s president and chief operating officer, Steve Johnson, said the facility keeps around 50,000 goods and that robots conduct about half of the picking, intending to automate all activities eventually.

Don’t worry; we won’t get 100% automation, as quoted from Julian Counihan, the general partner at Schematic Ventures.

Right now, using robots to pick orders makes most financial sense in 24/7 operations with a limited number of products, said Hasan Dandashly, chief executive of Atlanta-based Dematic Corp., a subsidiary of KION Group. AG is one of the largest providers of logistics and manufacturing automation.

“The pace of adoption is still evolving,” Mr Dandashly said. “I don’t think we are on the verge of not having human pickers anytime soon.”

- Excerpts from WSJ report

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