Last year, as the pandemic turbocharged demand for online shopping, Amazon hired 500,000 people. Ocado, meanwhile, brought in the robots. The internet grocer made a series of investments in automated warehouses and robotics companies to deal with an unexpected spike in home orders, as well as a lucrative tie-up with Marks & Spencer.
At its latest warehouses, robots outnumber humans, and the balance is only going in one direction.
“Retailers now understand that it is only through investment into automation they can deliver excellent experiences to their customers in a way that is still profitable for them,” the company declared in its annual report.
As the world looks to emerge from Covid-19, more companies are likely to look like Ocado. The pandemic did not only lead to a crisis of labour, with concerned workers reluctant to expose themselves to the virus. It also caused spikes in demand in certain industries, particularly online retail, and played havoc with global supply chains.
In recent months, a shortage of willing workers. blamed on continued uneasiness about Covid and ongoing border restrictions, has led to rising wages.
It is the perfect scenario, in other words, for robots to step in. This year, shipments of industrial robotics will grow by 9pc, according to Interact Analysis. ABI Research predicts that global spending on automation will rise from $23bn (£16.6bn) to $31bn.
“You have a situation where because they have such cheap capital, and because the cost of borrowing is so low, companies can actually think about investing for the long term and, using the crisis to make [their] supply chain more resilient,” says Rian Whitton of ABI Research. “It’s not surprising that automation is getting a lot of additional attention.”
As coronavirus confined people to their homes in the first half of 2020, robots were deployed in a series of publicity-grabbing initiatives. Drones were retrofitted to spray disinfectant around public places; Singapore enlisted robotic dogs to enforce social distancing in parks; self-driving taxi company Waymo suspended rides with a safety driver in the seat, but continued those that were completely driverless.
Many of these initiatives proved short-lived. But several permanent changes to behaviour in the past 18 months suggest that a long-heralded rise of the robots could arrive faster.
Chief among them has been a rapid rise in online shopping, where low margins and a push for efficiency means robotic warehouses are in hot demand. Consumers demanding faster deliveries have also pushed retailers towards more compact warehouses in city centres, where space is at a premium.
AutoStore, a Norwegian robotics company, has built “micro fulfillment” centres within stores, allowing deliveries to begin minutes from shoppers’ homes. In April, the company raised $2.8bn from investors including SoftBank at a $7.7bn valuation, up from a reported $1.9bn in 2019.
The deal is part of a surge of investment. After venture capital backing for robotics and drone companies fell last year to $5.1bn, it has almost doubled that in 2021 so far, at $9.3bn, according to data from PitchBook.
Tharsus, Britain’s biggest manufacturer of commercial robots, said that revenues grew by 40pc last year to £81m.
Chief executive Brian Palmer pins the growth partly on the fact that technological advances have simply made robots more capable: “There’s a lot of different industries that rely on huge numbers of people that carry out fairly basic tasks. Companies are looking at maybe not how you directly replace the person, but looking at getting robots in [to make their employees more productive].”
Whitton, of ABI Research, says that attempts to “onshore” more production after supply shocks during the pandemic have also spurred spending on factory robotics, which are needed to make domestic production cost effective.
“If you’re going to bring back manufacturing from China or Vietnam – these places that have much lower wages and far fewer labour protections… then you need to massively increase productivity in the West,” he says. “That requires big investments in automation.”
Risk of automation
So far, there have been few signs of higher investments in robots leading to lower employment, although furlough schemes have kept numbers artificially low. But continued questions over the labour market may only further incentivise the rise of the robots. Researchers at the Federal Bank of San Francisco last year found that the type of uncertainty caused by pandemics often speeds up automation.
Ocado hired more staff last year, as well as robots, with headcount rising from 15,152 to 18,618 – many of those in technical positions.
Palmer, of Tharsus, says robotics companies are desperate to hire the data scientists needed to analyse the huge quantities of information the machines produce.
If the pandemic really has hastened the rise of the robots, at least one job will still be around.