In recent months, “pickers” in the New Jersey fulfillment center for the online wholesaler Boxed have loaded home goods into colorfully branded boxes in the shadow of the machines and conveyor belts that many analysts say will one day completely replace them.
But even as the machines begin to pack up toothpaste, toilet paper, and bottled water and then carry the packages down two miles of belt, not a single Boxed employee will be searching the classifieds.
“I need every one of these guys,” says Rick Zumpano, VP of distribution and an automation veteran by way of Lowe’s and BJ’s Wholesale. “So I’m going to transition them from picking, to picking. I won’t lose any of them for automation—simply to support our growth.”
Boxed, started out of CEO Chieh Huang’s garage in 2013, has typically relied on pickers walking up and down serpentine rows of palates, looking for items and then grouping them in bins per each customer’s order, to later be loaded into boxes and shipped.
Boxed has an automation plan that flips that process: smaller items will be brought to the pickers by a warehouse-scale vending machine, who will then transfer them to a bin on a conveyor belt. That bin snakes down the two miles of belt, and larger items are placed inside by other pickers who stand beside specific items and load bins as they pass by.
“Really what we’ve done is eliminated the need for travel,” Zumpano says. “Those pickers in the old world still pick.”
Employees will also be switching to an audio-based information system, where items and order numbers are called through a headset. If the automation does mean some employees are no longer needed on the picking line, they will be retrained to help service the machines, or in customer service, Huang tells Quartz.
And by turning the workflow around, the fulfillment center expects to see a 300% gain in productivity.
“For us, it’s more about capacity. We need more capacity to fill the orders, rather than saving every last penny,” Huang says. “But even so, we’re taking that as an opportunity that it’s not about bottom-line profits all the time, it’s sometimes about those people who produce those results.”
Boxed has in the past gotten press coverage for the unusual fringe benefits the company offers workers, like kicking in $20,000 to help pay for weddings, or footing the bill for the college education of employees’ children. Huang doesn’t see the retention and retraining of staff as a benefit per se, but an extension of caring for the employees that have helped build the company.
“It’s people first. The folks that got us to this point built shareholder value. And now that we’re automating our fulfillment centers, from a person perspective it’s unfair that we kick them to the curb and say, ‘Thanks for your service, but now we’ve got Mr. Roboto to do your job.'”
Economists and analysts often say that just like the loom and automated weaving machines didn’t completely eliminate workers from the textile industry, industrial robots won’t wipe every warehouse or fulfillment center job off the map. But just as often, the experts have pointed out that it’s unclear what jobs will actually be created. The question is pressing, given that Boxed, Amazon, and others are committing to automation, threatening to transform an entire industry.
What ended up happening with the looms was a lot like the story told by Huang. Some workers were still needed, and others had to be educated into new roles driven by the specifics of the machinery. Wages increased for the skilled workers.
Huang agrees that the lesson of the loom applies here: Education will be the key that allows people to remain employable in an increasingly automated workforce.
“There will be pain, but as a society we’ll get past it,” Huang says. ”If the conversation surrounds profits only, there will be a lot more pain than if folks considered the human impact.”