While browsing the news today I came across three articles that give additional insights into the upcoming automation revolution. The first article gave an overview of Mujin’s humanless warehouse concept, the second about Iron Ox’s fully automated farm, and the third about Sam’s Club Now. I wanted to cover these concepts to emphasize how quickly the 3rd Revolution in Workplace Automation is approaching. The idea that existing processes executed by people will be replaced by automation is not a distant conceptual idea, but rather already has fully functioning business applications today! When you add in Amazon’s Go store experience, launched in 2017, the evidence suggests that Convenience stores (C-stores), farming and warehouse operations will see radical change in the next 5-10 years.
Fully Automated warehouses have been a challenging endeavor. However, it seems like Mujin’s concept may have found a solution by solving one of the more difficult tasks, unloading of trucking trailers. Amazon has also been trying to develop a fully automated warehouse concept too in the past 5 years. It purchased Kiva Systems Inc. in 2012, but that only brought partial automation to their warehouses, automated storage/retrieval operations. However, they have been expanding automation capabilities to pick and pack in the past couple of years. With Mujin’s solution that incorporates the loading and unloading of trucking trailers, they claim that a typical warehouse that requires 500 employees can be reduced to just 5.
Fully automated farming is interesting. In my previous post “Grow Your Own Food!” I covered how large-scale agriculture consumes 10 calories of energy for every 1 calorie of output which is not sustainable in the long term. It will be interesting to see how the ERoEI changes with automated farming in small warehouse type environments where the operations are running on electricity from solar energy and plants get their energy from the sun. Not only will these farming operations require fewer employees, energy will be cheap after the initial capital investment, and the warehouses will be closer to the customers. Small-scale warehouse or outdoor farming that is closer to their customers will reduce energy consumption and be fresher for the consumer. Today, most food needs to travel thousands of miles to their final destination. Reducing this to less than 100 miles can be economically beneficial and reduce the ERoEI.
Fully automated C-stores exist now and they are working well. I have personally used Amazon Go around 10 times and the accuracy is impressive with 0 errors. The concept is simple, walk into a store, scan a barcode, take what you want and leave. There is no dealing with cashiers or waiting in lines. Amazon plans to rolls out 1000s of these stores across the nation and now it appears Walmart via its Sam’s Club brand sees this as an opportunity too. The average convenience store staffs 9 people, where 8 are probably cashiers/stockers and 1 is a manager. With fully automated stores the people required to operate the store are reduced to someone who stocks the shelves who may even be the owner. C-stores are in a sense becoming a large vending machine. You will need someone to stock them, but automation will take care of the rest. According to NASC, The C-store industry consists of 154,958 locations in the United States, this means there is a potential that over 1.2 million jobs will be affected in the next 5 years. This doesn’t even consider the inevitable expansion of this technology to supermarkets and other retail.
The trend is clear that warehouse operations, farming, and stores are ripe for the transition to automation in the next 5 to 10 years. The impact to employment will not be minor and will not be constrained to these industries. If you work in these or similar industries you should be evaluating how you will plan for this future. There will still need to be humans to maintain and troubleshoot these systems, but far fewer will be required. Learning the basics of automation and robotics will set you up to be strategically postured for the change.
I think that those employees that remain will become more generalist with problem-solving skills. In a C-store, instead of an employee to just stock the shelves, people will be hired who can stock shelves and perform basic maintenance and troubleshooting. The maintenance and troubleshooting won’t be anything complicated, similar to troubleshooting an issue on your phone or your computer. Yes, this requires a greater skillset, but the people who really want to learn will be motivated to pick up this knowledge. The employees of these companies will not be asked to be engineers, but rather an individual who has basic problem-solving capabilities and can operate in more ambiguous environments.