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When Amazon warehouse workers complained of sore feet from walking too much, the company simply replaced them with 30,000 robots (and counting)


(NaturalNews) Amazon.com's online sales empire is built on the ability to quickly deliver nearly any product straight to the customer's door. Increasingly, that speed is driven by automated systems, rather than human labor.

In 2012, the company purchased a robotics manufacturer named Kiva Systems for $775 million, and renamed it Amazon Robotics. In 2014, the company began using robots to do some of the merchandise selection and packaging at its warehouses. By the end of that year, there were 15,000 robots in use at 10 of Amazon's 50 fulfillment centers. That number had increased to 30,000 robots at 13 fulfillment centers by the third quarter of 2015.

"It's a bit of an investment that has implications for a lot of elements of our cost structure, but we're happy with Kiva," said Phil Hardin, Amazon's director of investor relations. "It has been a great innovation for us, and we think it makes the warehouse jobs better, and we think it makes our warehouses more productive."

Worker replacement imminent?

Perhaps by no coincidence, Amazon's acquisition of Kiva shortly followed a prominent September 2011 expose of working conditions in its warehouses, published in the Pennsylvania newspaper The Morning Call. The article recounted the plight of workers, many of them elderly, forced to walk 13 to 15 miles per day through poorly organized warehouses, trying to fill orders fast enough to meet a quota.

When Amazon announced the deployment of its robots, it said that no workers would be fired as a consequence. Instead, the company said, the robots would work in conjunction with the employees, merely lightening employee workload. It remains to be seen how long the company will keep to that promise.

Regardless, Amazon has certainly achieved its goal of increased efficiency. A worker teamed up with a robot now fulfills orders three to four times as fast as a worker alone. Because the robots can navigate tight spaces, Amazon has increased the amount of inventory held at its mechanized warehouses by 50 percent.

Amazon to take over the skies, too?

So how exactly does a robot fill your Amazon order?

Shelves in Amazon warehouses are still packed by human beings, but the packages are not shelved with any particular organizational system. Instead, the locations of various types of merchandise are computerized so that the robot can find it quickly.

The robot in question is about 16 inches tall, weighs nearly 320 pounds, and can move at 5 miles per hour. It can move about 700 pounds worth of items at one time, and uses a motion sensor to avoid both human and inanimate obstacles as it navigates the warehouse. When an order comes in, the robot retrieves the item from the shelf and transports it to a worker, who then packages it for shipment.

It's not just in packaging that Amazon is looking to remove the troublesome human element. The company has announced plans to launch a program called Amazon Prime Air, which will offer 30 minute delivery via drone. In this case, of course, there is no doubt that human workers are to be directly replaced.

According to an ad unveiled recently by the company, Prime Air will be available as an option when ordering from Amazon, and will be able to drop packages into spaces the size of a typical backyard. The current prototype has a range of only 15 miles, but the company has more ambitious plans.

"In time, there'll be a whole family of Amazon drones — different designs for different environments," says Jeremy Clarkson, the former host of BBC's Top Gear car show, in the ad.

Google and Walmart have also announced similar plans. Numerous legal hurdles need to be cleared, however, before any company can deploy a fleet of unmanned delivery drones.

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