Robots, once a hot topic of discussion in the workforce ecosystem, fell off the radar. But Amazon.com’s investment is changing the paradigm. Last month, the company announced a $1 billion venture investment program called the “Amazon Industrial Innovation Fund,” and several of the fund’s first series of investments are going to makers of robots — including one that makes humanoid robots for work in warehouses.
“We see an opportunity to look beyond our own experience and empower companies that are developing emerging technologies in customer fulfillment operations, logistics and the supply chain,” said Alex Ceballos Encarnacion, Amazon.com’s VP of worldwide corporate development, in announcing the fund.
One report noted the move came as little surprise amid the recent pro-union vote at an Amazon.com warehouse and other recent issues.
Robots to the Rescue
A robotics company that got Amazon.com’s focus in its fund is Agility Robotics, a Corvallis, Oregon-based firm that was founded in 2015. It produces a bi-pedal robot named Digit that can assist in warehouses. Amazon.com’s investment was part of a $150 million funding round announced last month by the company. The round was led by venture capital firms DCVC and Playground Global.
“We’re deepening our investment in Agility Robotics because their robots solve the labor shortages plaguing businesses and wreaking havoc on supply chains,” said Matt Ocko, co-managing partner, DCVC.
Ocko said Agility’s robots are designed to “free people from repetitive or unpleasant tasks, allowing them to take on the more fulfilling work they can do better than any robot.”
Other robotics firms receiving investments through Amazon.com’s fund include BionicHive, which is developing an autonomous robotic solution that can adapt to existing shelving racks and boxes in warehouses. The company is based in Israel and was founded in 2014.
In addition, Mantis Robotics also received an investment. It is developing a tactile robotic arm that uses sensor technology to work alongside people. It is based in San Francisco and was founded in 2020.
The last two companies that Amazon.com is investing in are Modjoul — which is developing wearable safety technology that enables real-time, personalized alerts and recommendations aimed at reducing injuries — and Vimaan, which is developing computer vision and artificial intelligence solutions engineered to improve inventory management.
And while the issue of robots has not been top-of-mind among staffing buyers as of late, at least a few have in place a project to consider use of robots. Some 15% of staffing buyers surveyed said they had such a plan in place, while 39% said they intended to draw up such a plan within the next two years, according to SIA’s “Workforce Solutions Buyer Survey 2021.”
Will robots make a big entrance transforming the workforce ecosystem?
Numerous recent news reports have cited robots at work. Futurism.com reported that the West Japan Rail Co. is testing a giant robot to fix power lines, although it’s piloted by a human using VR, so some would say it’s not a traditional robot. And Engadget reports that fast food chain Jack in the Box is testing robots for its restaurants.
Jason Leverant, president and COO of staffing franchisor AtWork Group, says human workers likely won’t go away soon, and he doesn’t at this time see a tipping point in favor of robots where there will be a massive shift toward their use outnumbering human demand. Also, humans will still be needed to maintain robots and do other tasks. And even companies such as Amazon.com that have automated at a rapid pace are still hiring more and more human workers.
“What I see is an opportunity in the future,” Leverant said, although he added the ecosystem will have to work on upskilling workers and getting the word out that demand is changing.