Robots — Once Thought to Be a Killer of E-commerce Jobs — May Actually Be Saving Them

When the robots came to online retailer Boxed, dread came, too: The familiar fear that the machines would take over, leaving a trail of unemployed humans in their wake."I had a lot of people asking me, 'What is going to happen to us?'" says Veronica Mena, a trainer for the e-commerce startup, recalling the anxiety that rippled through her co-workers after company executives announced plans to open an automated warehouse in nearby Union, N. J.Yet their fears didn't come to pass.When the new warehouse opened this spring, workers found that their jobs were less physically demanding than at the older, manual warehouse in Edison, N. J. Instead of walking thousands of steps a day loading items onto carts, employees could stand at stations as conveyor belts brought the goods to them.And rather than cutting jobs, the company added a third shift to keep up with rapidly growing demand.What happened at Boxed — and has occurred elsewhere — suggests that widespread fears about automation and job loss are often misplaced. Automation has actually helped create jobs in e-commerce, rather than eliminate them, and stands to create more in the years ahead. By accelerating delivery times, robotics and software have made online shopping an increasingly viable alternative to brick-and-mortar stores, and sales have ballooned at online retailers.The surge in e-commerce has required the rapid build-out of a vast network of warehouses and delivery systems that include both robots and human workers. The robots didn't take jobs from people, because many of the jobs didn't exist before."We're not looking to do the same work with half the people," said Rick Zumpano, vice president for distribution at Boxed. "Since we're growing, we need everyone."Boxed has two other fulfillment centers — in Las Vegas and Flower Mound.The 75,000-square-foot Flower Mound facility employs 40 people and opened late last year.William Fong, co-founder of Boxed and chief technology officer, said there are plans to bring robotic carts to Flower Mound that will do the heavy lifting and walking. Robot carts deliver merchandise loaded and unloaded by people."We plan to grow. The volume of business we have today is not the same as last year," Fong said. "We're not going to be replacing jobs with robots, but we'll be able to serve more customers."  Continue reading...

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