In the “Automate the Freight” series, I’ve concentrated on stories that reflect my premise that the killer app for self-driving vehicles will not be private passenger cars, but will more likely be the mundane but necessary task of toting things from place to place. The economics of replacing thousands of salary-drawing and benefit-requiring humans in the logistics chain are greatly favored compared to the profits to be made by providing a convenient and safe commuting experience to individuals. Advances made in automating deliveries will eventually trickle down to the consumer market, but it’ll be the freight carriers that drive innovation.
While I’ve concentrated on self-driving freight vehicles, there are other aspects to automating the supply chain that I’ve touched on in this series, from UAV-delivered blood and medical supplies to the potential for automating the last hundred feet of home delivery with curb-to-door robots. But automation of the other end of the supply chain holds a lot of promise too, both for advancing technology and disrupting the entire logistics field. This time around: automated packaging lines, or how the stuff you buy online gets picked and wrapped for shipping without ever being touched by human hands.
Working the Line
Anyone who has ever worked in the shipping department of a manufacturer or distributor knows the irony of a job that’s both repetitious to the point of boredom and frustratingly unpredictable. Most of the time, goods coming down the conveyor toward your packing station are easily handled – pick the right size box from the selection of flattened cartons you have available, build up the box and tape the bottom flaps together, insert the goods, add packing material, seal the box and label it, and send it on down the line.
This can go on for hours, and then something can come down the line that causes all sorts of problems. It’s irregularly shaped, or too big for the biggest box you have. Or worse, it’s just over the size of one box but way too small for the next size up. Those packages can waste a lot of time while you improvise a solution, perhaps by cutting and pasting boxes into a makeshift carton. And all the while, the conveyor belt feeding your station is filling up with other, easier to pack orders.
Even when a normal packing line works smoothly, the waste of human capital on such tasks can be unconscionable. Yes, people are generally more dexterous and better at solving the puzzle of what fits where than machines are, and it’s true that manual jobs like these provide a living for a lot of people. But speaking from experience – I’ve done my share of temp work on shipping lines – it’s mind-numbing work that’s hard on both the psyche and the body.
In an attempt to address these and other problems, Amazon is beginning to roll out more automation to its already highly roboticized distribution centers. As Reuters somewhat indignantly reports, Amazon has been testing the automated system at two of its centers with plans to roll out dozens more, resulting in a loss of jobs. When you drill down a little further, though, you see that the net impact is perhaps 200 to 300 workers across all the distribution centers, each of which employs about 2,000 people. So while it’s certainly not good news for some Amazonians, it’s also nowhere near the robot job-pocalypse that Reuters implies with its headline – yet.
Cartons on Demand
Regardless of the hype, what Amazon is actually doing here is pretty interesting. Almost all of us have had the experience of getting an Amazon delivery in a box that makes absolutely no sense based on its contents. It’s incredibly wasteful, both in terms of the raw materials of the box and the packing, and in terms of the space that’s taken up by the outsized package in the planes, trains, and automobiles that will whisk it to your doorstep. But it’s also understandable; when a packer only has a few boxes to choose from, he or she does the best with what’s on hand.
The fix is to make the carton exactly fit the order, and that’s what the CartonWrap system that Amazon is testing does. Made by Italian company CMC SRL, the machine is capable of packing arbitrary orders into shipping cartons custom made on the fly. The machine accepts goods on an input conveyor where they are scanned and sized. At the other end of the line, a fanfold stack of plain cardboard is cut to the proper length, scored for folding, and die cut with a terrifying swinging guillotine blade. Various rollers and pneumatic actuators press and fold the precut flat sheet into a box around the ordered goods, sealing it and applying a label before sending it along the line.
The boxes formed by the machine are not quite the simple cartons we’re used to seeing from Amazon, but the company claims that the more complicated shape makes the box easier to open. You’ll also note that no padding material is added to the carton; the box is exactly sized to fit the order snugly. This would seem to preclude its use for some delicate items, but for books, small items, some foods, and soft items like clothing, it makes perfect sense.
It’s easy to see how CartonWrap could be integrated into a completely hands-off packing system. Rather than being fed by a worker, the input could easily be taken from one of the robotic pods that swarm about in some Amazon distribution centers. And similar systems could handle the outfeed from the packing line, collecting packed orders into pods that will be loaded into the backs of self-driving delivery trucks. With last-hundred yard automation, it could be that someday the first person to touch your order will be you when you pick it up from the doorstep.
Clearly, Amazon and other big shippers will not be able to completely replace human workers anytime soon. Some things are just too difficult to grasp mechanically or too delicate to be trusted to a package without padding. There will likely always be a need to staff a manual packing line alongside all the automation, but if shippers can even get to the point where 80% of the orders are handled by a lights-out warehousing system, the productivity gains will be huge.