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Warehouse robots increase productivity

Marketplace Staff Sep 11, 2008

Warehouse robots increase productivity

Marketplace Staff Sep 11, 2008


Renita Jablonski: The Labor Department will release this morning its weekly numbers on new claims for unemployment. Finding a job right now isn’t easy. There’s the economy, of course, and also in the mix, more workers that don’t take breaks. Online shoe retailer Zappos just brought in a new crew to help cut costs by getting orders out the door faster. Walgreens and Staples employ a similar bunch. Sally Herships has more.

Sally Herships: [Beeps and scanning sounds in a warehouse] Everyday, Michelle Gill ships thousands of orders from Zappos’ warehouse in Kentucky. She has some new colleagues. They zip back and forth in the stockroom bringing Gill the exact items she needs. And they never stop for coffee breaks. That’s because the new guys? They’re robots. Gill says she loves working with them.

Michelle Gill: … Because they bring the work to me instead of me having to go get the work. I’m less tired at the end of the day. But I still am getting much more work done.

Made by Kiva Systems the orange bots look sort of like industrial-sized vacuum cleaners, but without the hose. They’re battery operated and only 18 inches high. And they’ve got wheels. They’re designed to be high-tech “go-fors.” Kiva spokesman Mitch Rosenberg:

Mitch Rosenberg: Everything you buy, everything spends time in at least one and usually many warehouses before it reaches you.

So cutting costs at the warehouse level could have wide-reaching effects. Current systems for moving packages use big, heavy machines that are bolted down, like giant dry-cleaning carousels. But the robots are flexible. They navigate by scanning directional information from adhesive strips on the floor of the warehouse. Making changes is easy — just move the shelves and stickers.

Craig Adkins: It uses between 40 and 50 percent as much energy as typical systems do.

Craig Adkins runs the Zappos warehouse. He says the part of the building where the robots work doesn’t need light or heat.

Adkins: So we save a lot of money on electricity because of all that.

But people are just more expensive. They need climate control. So will robots take their jobs? Adkins says no.

Adkins: My fear is not laying people off, my fear is how are we going to hire enough people to keep this place growing.

And how do the human workers like having the robots around?

Adkins: They love it. So, it’s like you get a brand new car, which one you want to drive? Your new one or your old one.

For now, man and machine seem happy side by side.

I’m Sally Herships for Marketplace.

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