Amazon Launches $1B Fund To Invest In Warehouse Innovation, Automation
The largest user of industrial space is launching a $1B fund to invest in companies that advance innovation in logistics and the supply chain, with an apparent focus on robotics.
Amazon has launched the Amazon Industrial Innovation Fund, the internet giant announced Thursday, with the first investments going to five companies: Modjoul, a South Carolina-based firm that is developing wearable tech that monitors workers for musculoskeletal issues; Agility Robotics, which is developing a bipedal walking robot; California-based Vimaan, which is developing computer vision and AI for inventory management; San Francisco-based Mantis Robotics, which is developing a robotic arm that works alongside people; and BionicHIVE, an Israeli company that is developing robots that can stack shelves and racks.
Amazon said it will consider funding any company focused on improving logistics, supply chain management and fulfillment operations, especially in areas of robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and autonomy and other emerging technologies, the company said in a release.
The goal, Amazon said, is to find ways to improve delivery speed and the experience of employees working in warehouses and logistics.
“We know there are companies out there that share our curiosity and excitement to invent. Whether our investment helps them grow or leads them to work with Amazon, or both, we're excited to help advance these technologies as online shopping becomes even more important to people who are looking for more convenience and time savings,” Amazon Vice President of Worldwide Corporate Development Alex Ceballos Encarnacion said in the release.
While Amazon has revolutionized the logistics industry since its founding, critics maintain that innovation has come at a price for its workers, especially warehouse and delivery workers who critics argue have faced unreasonable demands and expectations as the online retailer strives to shorten the time consumers receive their orders.
In response to years of demanding work, Amazon workers have increasingly sought labor protections. Workers at a fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, pushed to form the company's first union last year, an effort that has seen legal challenges from both sides and remains unresolved. But a majority of employees at a large warehouse in Staten Island voted earlier this month to unionize, the first Amazon property to do so.
In December, prominent industrial developer Sean Dalfen said at a Bisnow event in Atlanta that tight labor markets are prompting companies to add more amenities and programs for warehousing employees to retain them, but those costs also are propelling companies to seek ways to automate their logistical networks, taking the human element out of the equation.
“I can tell you, most companies don't really care. What they care about is their bottom line. They can tell you they care, but at the end of the day, they're having trouble getting goods on shelves, and it's costing them money,” said Dalfen, the president of Dalfen Industrial. “On a long-term basis, they will get rid of those employees and they will replace them with automation. That's the risk nobody's talking about right now."
In its announcement, Amazon stressed that the fund was designed to find innovations to help its employees, not replace them.
“Even as we have continually improved our operations to better the employee experience and enhanced safety through the development of new workstations with better ergonomics, we hope this fund opens the door for more collaboration,” Ceballos said.