As the next level of robotic automation occurs, worker’s stress is being pushed to new heights. While collaborative robots, called cobots, have previously dominated the materials handling marketplace, there is a significant movement underway to utilize mobile robotic devices called drivers robotic devices called drivers. According to a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Amazon currently uses over 200,000 drivers in operations across the country. Manufacturing.net published this article a few weeks back about warehouse robots and employees working together. These devices, guided by GPS programs, are capable of moving significant amounts of material from point A to point B quickly. They are also capable of awakening a worker’s worst fears.
In order to move quickly, these drivers are programmed to work in protected areas and to run “lights out”. However, they are not capable of removing items that have fallen off the transporter nor overcoming various malfunctions. It is then up to the human worker to solve the problem. While Amazon believes it is providing workers with great problem solving opportunities, many of their workers feel as though they are just traffic cops or trash removers. In order to remedy a distressed driver situation, workers are provided with a utility belt that works like a superhero’s force field, commanding the nearest driver to abruptly halt and others to slow down and adjust their routes. One worker was quoted as saying, “When you’re out there, you can hear them coming but you can’t see them. It’s like, where are they coming from? It’s a little nerve racking.”
While the fear that robots will replace human workers has generally not been realized, there are growing concerns that the increased pace of artificial intelligent technology will take a toll on human health, safety and morale. The smart machines continue to raise the performance bar for humans who are supporting the machine’s efforts which then result in increased speeds and greater profits. In the words of a robotic technologist,
“The symphony of humans and machines working together allows us to pass along lower costs to our customers.” According to Beth Gutelius, University of Illinois at Chicago,
“It sounds quite lovely, but I rarely hear from a worker’s perspective that that’s what it feels like.”
According to her study, organizations face a significant challenge when relying on Artificial Intelligence (AI) software to monitor and micro-manage worker behaviors. The unwelcome result is likely to be higher turnover and lower quality of job performance.
As a remedy, several rapidly growing startup organizations are addressing the health, safety and morale challenges caused by these not so worker friendly drivers. While industry experts credit Amazon and other leading edge organization with rapid cost saving innovations through the use of robotic driver technology, these startups are bringing balance to this challenging human & machine interaction. Leaders such as Melonie Wise of Fetch Robotics maintains that these drivers are basically shelves on wheels and workers to do un-ergonomic moves like reaching high or crouching low to pick or place materials. The robots are designed to work safely around people, not operate in cages. The worker friendly robots from these innovative companies move at the speed of the workers and perform operations at levels within the human comfort zone.
Another initiative to address the machine and worker balance is being pushed by Macron Dynamics of Croydon, Bucks County. According to another Philadelphia Inquirer article, Macron is simultaneously addressing the shortage of skilled workers and efforts to improve worker compatibility with technology, by going old school. They offer products that blend robotics with typical metal framework, some belts and pulleys, as well as high speed thrusting arms. The idea is to cut labor costs while doing away with tasks that create safety problems. By blending various advantages of robotics with old school technology options, their products are allowing workers with basic manufacturing skills to be included in the technology revolution. They are providing an alternative approach to the demand for bigger, faster and smarter robotics by getting results at the speed of workers. Most of the time, making your hardware and software conform to the reality of the world you live in, is the best innovation of all.
According to Anthony Cicone, Macron CEO, they are also using Bucks County CareerLink, and Bucks County Community College to recruit and train workers for their organizational needs. The Manufacturing Alliance still has limited training funds available for member utilization.