One month ago, during the latest minimum wage protest by fast food workers, we presented the machine that would soon put most of them out of a job.
We were referring to the nemesis of low-skilled burger flippers everywhere, the Momentum Machines burger maker.
The robot is shown below. It occupies 24 square feet, and is much smaller and efficient than most assembly-line fast-food operations. It provides “gourmet cooking methods never before used in a fast food restaurant” and will deposit the completed burger into a bag. It does all of this without a trace of attitude.
According to public data, the company’s robot can “slice toppings like tomatoes and pickles immediately before it places the slice onto your burger, giving you the freshest burger possible.” Unlike human workers, the robot is “more consistent, more sanitary, and can produce ~360 hamburgers per hour” or a burger every 10 seconds.
Furthermore, future generations of the device “will offer custom meat grinds for every single customer. Want a patty with 1/3 pork and 2/3 bison ground to order? No problem.”
As the company’s website adds, “our various technologies can produce an ever-growing list of common choices like salads, sandwiches, hamburgers, and many other multi-ingredient foods with a gourmet focus.”
But most importantly, it has no wage demands: once one is purchashed it will work with 100% efficiency for years. And it never goes on strike.
As the company’s co-founder Alexandros Vardakostas told Xconomy his “device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them.”
The company’s philosophy on making millions of fast food workers obsolete:
The issue of machines and job displacement has been around for centuries and economists generally accept that technology like ours actually causes an increase in employment.
The three factors that contribute to this are:
1. The company that makes the robots must hire new employees,
2. The restaurant that uses our robots can expand their frontiers of production which requires hiring more people, and
3. The general public saves money on the reduced cost of our burgers. This saved money can then be spent on the rest of the economy.
For those complaining that there will be no “human touch” left to take the orders, robots have that covered too.
The rapid robotification of the quick serve and fast food industry is a major problem for the US economy, which once built on a manufacturing backbone, has seen the fastest jobs growth in recent years for workers employed by “food service and drinking places” i.e., fast food workers, waiters and bartenders even as the manufacturing sector has languised in what many now say is an industrial recession.
Worse, the threat and increasingly reality of rising minimum wages means it is only a matter of time before companies that rely on low-skilled labor proceed to lay off millions of workers, thus setting back the Fed’s efforts to boost wage inflation by years.
But it is not just the restaurant industry whose employees are in jeopardy: increasingly retail workers who operate behind the scenes, usually in warehouses and fulfillment centers, where they are responsible for the logistical process of finding, sorting, checking and dispatching any products are in danger of being replaced by robots.
One place where this outsourcing to robots has famously already taken place is Amazon: as Wired reports, the world’s largest online retailer has said it has tens of thousands of bots working across 10 of its US “fulfillment centers” which is another word for warehouse. “While the company is relying on more than 100,000 temp workers this holiday season to supplement its already massive warehouse workforce, the advantages of offloading more of that work onto machines are easy to see. Robots don’t slow. They don’t tire. They don’t get injured or distracted or sick. They don’t require paychecks or try to unionize.”
Interestingly, Amazon’s robots were invented by a company called Kiva Systems, which Amazon acquired for $775 million back in 2012. The reason: prevent the competition from enjoying the same margin boosting efficiencies that Amazon has by replacing human workers with robots.
However, with Kiva locked down, a new player has emerged to give smaller online retail rivals the same robotic advantage enjoyed by Amazon.
Locus Robotics is an offshoot of Massachusetts-based Quiet Logistics, a third-party order fulfillment company that gets merchandise out the door for big apparel retailers like Zara, Gilt Groupe, and Bonobos. The idea behind its bots isn’t just to replace humans, but to create a system where everyone can work together more efficiently.
As the following infographic from Locus reveals, since the task of procuring items in a distribution center is grueling, tedious work, which involves lots of walking, Locus aims to have its bots do the “walking” instead.
While Amazon’s Kiva bots have a mechanism that allows them to physically hoist specially designed shelves and bring them to human workers, Locus’ carry bins on trays while they travel the lengths of standard-issue shelving. The idea is to cut out the worst parts of the job to let humans focus on the parts of the job that robots still can’t do, like selecting the individual items and checking them for any defects.
“Work in warehouses is not always pleasant to begin with, but then you add unproductive travel time and it works against you,” says Al Dekin, a vice president at Locus, who estimates that warehouse workers walk 10 to 15 miles a day.
Currently Locus is ramping up production: Locus started with 10 robots roaming the Quiet Logistics warehouse, which covers some 500,000 square feet, to support the logistics operations of companies already working with the e-commerce company. In the coming weeks it plans to roll out more.
According to Wired, in the new year, Locus hopes to expand to work with other companies, and the demand is already there. And while Amazon may dominate online retail, e-commerce overall still has so much room to grow. E-commerce sales have grown in the double digits for years according to research firm eMarketer—in 2015 alone, it’s projected to rise 13.9 percent. Yet e-commerce still accounts for just 9 percent of total US retail sales.
But while the revenue flowing through to online commerce will certainly rise, one thing that will tumble in the coming years are the number of jobs in the Transportation and Warehousing Sector, which in November just hit a record 791,200.
So for the hundreds of thousands of warehouse, retail and storage workers who will soon be made obsolete, please meet your nemesis: the robot who will do your job without complaints, asking for a pay raise (or salary), or ever threatening to unionize.
And now it’s time to calculate how many extra tens if not hundreds of billions in additional welfare spending the soon to be unemployed millions in low-skilled workers will cost the US taxpayer.