Wednesday, May 10, 2017

More DPs on the horizon. (The good news? Massachusetts is the hub of the robotics industry.)

When I was a kid, we went every other year to Chicago, where my mother was from. My mother’s family were Germans, from  the corner of the German diaspora that was once the Austo-Hungarian Empire and that became, after World War One, Rumania. (That’s where my mother was born. She came over, with her parents – through Ellis Island – when she was 3 or 4.) While many of her relatives, on both her father’s and her mother’s side, had emigrated before World War Two to the States or Canada, many others stayed behind. And a lot of them became displaced persons (DPs) after that war.

My grandmother helped plenty of these DPs – her nieces and nephews, her cousins – come over, and, on our biennial treks to Chicagoland, we often met some of these folks (volks?) – or, as we began calling them as we got older and wise-assier, “no sprechs”. One, I remember, had married a Frenchwoman named Madeleine, and they had a couple of no-sprech, non-parle daughters who sat around the living room, on my grandmother’s plastic-covered couch, in their fancy pale blue nylon dresses (complete with petticoats). We were wearing shorts and sneakers.

These days, although plenty of them (Syrians, et al) are heading there, DPs aren’t from Mitteleuropa.

But there’s another type of DP, and they were brought up in an article I saw the other day on the warehouse robotics industry in Massachusetts, which will be wholesale replacing warehouse workers at some point in the not so distant future. Today, there are around a quarter of a million of them in the US, picking items off shelves for us. Tomorrow? Let’s just say I wouldn’t bet my employment future on working in a warehouse.

A few years back, Amazon bought Kiva, a Massachusetts warehouse robotics company, which they renamed as Amazon Robotics. And that might have been that, if Amazon had been “generous” enough to let the company they acquired keep selling robots to the competition – retailers like Walgreens, Staples, and The Gap. But they went ‘hell, no.’

And that:

…,move gave birth to a new generation of robot makers scrambling to fill the vacuum.

“Amazon has created an arms race,” said Rick Faulk, chief executive of Locus Robotics, a Wilmington company founded by Quiet Logistics Inc. an eight-year-old warehouse operator in Devens that was left high and dry by the Kiva deal. And many of the key arms merchants are located in the Boston area. (Source: Boston Globe)

And then there’s Vecna Technologies, Six River Systems, and RightHand Robotics, which has carved out a real niche for itself. It’s:

…tackled perhaps the toughest challenge in the industry: building a robotic hand that can reach into a bin that is full of merchandise and pick individual items out for shipment.

Robots have been used in warehouses for a while, but the technology is getting more and more sophisticated – more powerful sensors, better vision systems, more accurate mapping tech. Which makes those robots more human-like. Which makes them better equipped – I was going to say evolved, and I guess that’s true, too – to displace persons.

Warehouse robotics is just part of the story. Massachusetts has been been at robotics for a while. Today:

The industry has well more than 120 companies, about 4,700 employees, and revenues of $1.6 billion, according to an October 2016 report by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

For now, the robots work in collaboration with humans. But once those right hands figure out what the left hand’s doing, well, lookout.

As it turns out, because the “pick-and-pack” jobs are so boring and high-pressure, it’s actually difficult for warehouses to fill all the jobs they have. 

Indeed, Chris Elliott, a senior consultant for Blue Horseshoe, a warehousing consultancy in Westerville, Ohio, said many warehouses are built in rural areas or small towns where land is cheap, but people are scarce. And warehouse work is so tedious that worker turnover is high.

I’m no Luddite. Any job that can be automated will be automated, and there’s no wage that’s so low that it can withstand the automation tsunami. So “there’s going to be a lot of people who’ll be displaced,” said Elliott. “It’s going to be a disruption.” But we can let it just happen, or get out in front of things and figure out exactly what it is that folks on the lower-end of the skill continuum are going to do for a living. We’ve seen what can happen when economic DPs don’t think anyone’s paying attention to them. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Years ago – long enough in the way back that I was commuting to a full time job – I heard Kenneth Cole (the shoe guy) interviewed on NPR. He was talking about off-shore manufacture of his shoes, and said that, even if the manufacturing jobs went away, there would be plenty of work around for shoe designers. It doesn’t take a math major to figure out that the ratio between designers and factory workers isn’t exactly 1:1. Nor will the ratio between robotics engineers and warehouse workers.

More DPs, coming right (hand) up!

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