Last week the New York Times reported on alleged poor working conditions and even poorer worker treatment at Amazon distribution centers in the USA. In a follow up a piece on Tuesday 18th August the Times of London reported that it had contacted the GMB union to discuss conditions in such centers in the UK where more than 7000 people are employed. A center may be as large as several football fields. Some of the work is done by robots which find items that have been ordered. It is the job of the human workers to pack these items ready for dispatch. Their task involves walking many miles a day guided by handheld satellite devices to pack orders quickly. Managers closely monitor the efficiency of employee’s work. The union contends that the constant stress of being monitored and never being able to drop below a certain level of performance is harsh and reports that some human workers had begun to suffer from musculoskeletal problems, stress and anxiety but that Amazon had refused to discuss worker health issues with the union. Amazon has declined to comment.
The collaboration between robots and humans at Amazon as described by the union is in complete contrast to that described by workers at the Rodon Group in the USA which use the robot Baxter which has been specifically designed to work alongside humans. Senior managers appreciate the ease of use that allows Baxter to be adopted quickly and easily among its production staff. “The learning experience we’ve seen with Baxter was a shock. They couldn’t believe how easy it is.” And as far as losing jobs is concerned Jason Miller, Vision & Automation Technician, sees the bigger picture of what Baxter represents. “The general sense is that nobody feels it’s threatening their jobs,” he says. “They think he’s really bringing jobs back for us. There are several jobs that might be in China if not for a technology like Baxter.”
Here we have two very different views of the impact of robots on the human condition in the workplace. In teaching students robotics in D&T would these ‘true stories’ make a good case study?