FedEx Follows Amazon Into the Robotic Future

KERNERSVILLE, N.C. — As soon as the first robot arrived at a FedEx shipping hub in the heart of North Carolina tobacco country early last year, talk of pink slips was in the air. Workers had been driving the “tuggers” that navigated large and irregular items across the vast concrete floor of the 630,000-square-foot freight depot since it opened in 2011.

Their initial robotic colleague drew a three-dimensional digital map of the place as it tugged freight around. A few months later, three other robots — nicknamed Lucky, Dusty and Ned in a nod to the movie “¡Three Amigos!” — arrived, using the digital map to get around on their own. By March, they were joined by two others, Jefe and El Guapo. Horns honking and warning lights flashing, the autonomous vehicles snaked through the hub, next to about 20 tuggers that still needed humans behind the wheel.

The robot team, part of the automation trend rippling through the worlds of shipping and online retail, was the first significant deployment of mobile robots inside a FedEx hub. Amazon and our e-commerce shopping habits are big reasons it’s happening.

But what has happened at the FedEx hub may be a surprise to people who fear that they are about to be replaced by a smart machine: a robot might take your role, but not necessarily your job.

Yes, the robots replaced a few jobs right away. And in time, they will replace about 25 jobs in a facility that employs about 1,300 people. But the hub creates about 100 new jobs every year — and a robot work force still seems like the distant future.

“Everyone will have a job,” said Galen Steele, the senior manager who oversees the depot. “It just might be in a different place.”

As people have become more comfortable buying online, big and bulky goods like car tires, canoes and boxes as big as a coffin have accounted for an increasing percentage of the packages flowing through FedEx’s distribution centers, said Ted Dengel, who oversees operations technology for the FedEx Ground network, which includes 35 shipping hubs across the United States and Canada, including the facility in North Carolina.

These ungainly items can’t fit on a conveyor belt. That’s where the robots, which cost several thousand dollars and are made by a Massachusetts company called Vecna, come in.

Read full New York Times article by Cade Metz