Humanoids getting their feet wet in logistics

Amazon has started to test a humanoid robot, Digit, in its warehouses this week, raising fresh questions about how swiftly humanoids will be utilized in logistics. Made by Agility Robotics, the bipedal robot can grasp and lift objects, and it will start by shifting empty tote boxes as Amazon continues to explore new ways of automating its warehouses.

Warehousing offers the perfect combination of repetitiveness and menial work, coupled with a lack of standardization and a lack of uniformity of things handled. For companies operating fulfillment centers with a wide product mix or fluctuating demand, the flexibility of humanoid robots could deliver a solution to the ongoing labor and skills crisis in the logistics industry. For example, humanoid robots could be dropped into the workforce during seasonal peaks in demand without requiring substantial operational changes, unlike other automated technologies where large changes to warehouse workflows are required.

One early application for humanoid robots is likely to be trailer unloading, as it is simple, repetitive and physically demanding. Unlike other robotic solutions, humanoid robots offer the additional benefit of being flexible enough to take on multiple different tasks in a facility, rather than being limited to a single process or workflow.

Despite the current media storm around the technology and the number of bots in development, this change will not happen overnight, as pilot projects can take many months, or even years, to reach completion. Robotics solutions are in high demand within the logistics sector in light of severe labor and skills shortages, and volatile demand. However, while the widespread use of humanoid robots within warehouses is certainly a possibility, it is not an inevitability and we may well find that other robotics technology is better suited to specific tasks and comes with fewer ethical problems, particularly in terms of perceived role replacement.

Warehouses ripe for the use of humanoids, but challenges persist

Amazon testing Digit.
Amazon has started testing Agility Robotics’ Digit humanoids in its operations. | Source: Amazon

Reports claim Amazon’s decision to trial Digit in its warehouses raises concerns about the displacement of human workers by machines. Other automated systems are ‘unhuman’ enough not to cause unease to the same extent as humanoid workers.

In response to fears around job loss, Amazon has emphasized the “hundreds of thousands of new jobs” that have been created as a result of its use of robotic systems, including “700 categories of new job types, in skilled roles, which didn’t exist within the company beforehand.” The global warehousing sector, particularly within the U.S., has been facing critical shortages of labor and skills in recent years. A poll published earlier this year by MHI and Deloitte revealed hiring and retaining qualified workers and talent shortages were the leading challenges for U.S. supply chain leaders, with many planning to invest in robotics and automation in the near future.

Now that the advent of humanoid robots in the warehouse sector is a reality, it is causing ripples through the fulfillment sector about what the potential ramifications are for the human workforce and how quickly humanoid robots will become a common sight in fulfillment centers. However – although Digit walks on two legs and uses its arms to lift things – we are a long way from a Blade Runner-esque dystopic future in which sentient robots walk undetected among us.

In practical terms, Digit has been designed specifically for warehouse automation where the complexities of human thought and movement are less important than improving throughput and filling skills and labor gaps. With almost 1.5​ million humans employed across Amazon’s operations, the company is keen to stress the potential to create jobs through the deployment of humanoid robots, as well as replacing the most “menial, mundane and repetitive” tasks. Developed by Amazon-backed Agility Robotics, Digit is described by the retail titan as “a mobile manipulator solution.” Standing 5ft 9in (175cm) tall, Digit can lift and carry up to 35lbs (16kg), crouch, reach, pick up and put down.

Tye Brady, chief technologist at Amazon Robotics, told reporters in Seattle that the move does not mean job cuts at Amazon and people are “irreplaceable” to the business because of their “ability to think at a higher level, the ability to diagnose problems.”

Melonee Wise on The Robot Report Podcast

The interview with Melonee Wise, CTO of Agility Robotics, starts at 23:51.

Other humanoid robots are in development and testing by companies such as Figure AI and Boston Dynamics to be used in distribution centers. Tesla’s Optimus Robot has the capability to sort objects fully autonomously as it can self-calibrate its arms and legs, while the commercial launch of Apollo by tech startup Apptronik is expected to take place in late 2024. Videos of the humanoid robot have already shown it walking, case picking, palletizing and unloading trailers.

In reality, warehouse automation solutions have been in place for decades now, including autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) working alongside human workers and carrying out many of the menial, physically demanding jobs. Automated storage and retrieval systems are capable of order picking at a much faster rate and are being used alongside human workers to increase throughput.

Most companies use robotic technology working alongside and collaborating with their human workforce and anecdotal evidence suggests that people like working alongside technology such as AMRs, where the menial, physically demanding jobs are largely carried out by robots and they act in a supervisory capacity. However, this may become more problematic when it comes to humanoid robots; who wants to be outlifted, outpaced, and outperformed by a robot that looks like a person?

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How soon will humanoids become a regular in warehouses?

It looks as though the widespread use of humanoids in the warehouse is some way off despite Amazon’s latest move. Pilots of new technology such as this can take upwards of 18 months and, if successful, rollout tends to be in small steps. However, Amazon has always been a leader in its use of robotics and the rest of the industry tends to follow (or fail!), so this pilot could be the catalyst for humanoid robot uptake in the coming years. How human workers will respond to their robot colleagues is unclear, but with the warehouse industry facing a skills and labor crisis, this could offer the solution companies have been looking for.

Is it possible for the use of humanoid robots to be hyped too much? And given the representations of humanoid robots we often see in popular culture, will this shape public opinion? Can robots look too much like people? It is true that the more lifelike humanoid robots are, the more they are labor replacement personified.

It is too early to tell whether in the long term humanoid robots will become a common sight in warehouses around the world – much will depend on how successful these early pilots are. Humanoid robots offer the potential flexibility and scalability to be used within existing warehouse operations alongside the human workforce, helping to pick, move and sort goods. They are the next logical step in the evolution of the multibillion-dollar robotics industry, as customers seek solutions that can be used across multiple workflows and applications.

At Interact Analysis, our research suggests that the flexibility and scalability humanoid robots offer could be a possible answer to ongoing labor and skills shortages. However, it does not come without complications and it is yet to be seen whether these will be easily overcome to see their rapid deployment in warehouses.

To learn more about Interact Analysis’ Robotics & Warehouse Automation portfolio, get in touch with Ash Sharma directly:

Editor’s Note: This article was republished, with permission, from Interact Analysis

About the Author

Sharma is the Managing Director of Interact Analysis and lead for Interact Analysis’ Robotics and Warehouse Automation Division. He brings 20 years of experience to the table in sectors ranging from industrial automation and smart manufacturing to drones, robotics and medical technology.

Written by

Akash Gupta