In 2015, Chinese manufacturing leaders convened at a robotics conference in Beijing to devise plans for a future labor industry run almost entirely by machines. Robots designed to replace China’s largely low-skilled, low-wage workforce commanded the show floor. The robot revolution so often depicted in sci-fi and cyberpunk novels seemed imminent.
A recent video of robot workers in action at the Shentong Express (STO) factory in Tianjin makes this sci-fi future seem more real than ever. But the robots at STO are not the anthropomorphic Blade Runner robots you might imagine them to be. An overhead view of the package sorting facility shows hundreds of tiny yellow pods zooming, never colliding, in complex routes in every direction. Occasionally a robot stops at its destination, mechanically drops its package down an adjacent chute, and precisely navigates its way back across the sorting floor for another.
Each time a robot delivers a package or returns to the package pool, the system calculates one of 300 billion route combinations to formulate the shortest route and avoid collisions with the other robots. According to STO’s manager of logistics, the amount of automated calculations that the sorting facility conducts in just five minutes is the same as the number of takeoff and landing calculations that the Beijing International Airport conducts in an entire day.
The team of robots at STO can sort as many as 200,000 packages per day. Each package is sorted within three and a half hours of entering the facility. Before robots, it would have taken 100 skilled people to do the same job as efficiently. Now, only a couple of people are seen in the STO factory, handing off packages from a pile to the robots for sorting.
The package-sorting pods are self-charging, enabling them to work 24/7. They don’t ask for breaks or holidays off. Most importantly, they don’t ask for compensation for their labor. An STO representative reported that the robots cost the factory only half of what it would cost to pay a full staff of humans for the job.