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Report: Amazon Deploys Order-Packing Automation That Threatens Warehouse Jobs

Amazon has deployed automated technology that can pack warehouse e-commerce orders five times faster than human employees, casting a spotlight on how online retailers are searching for ways to increase efficiency in this part of the supply chain, minimize repetitive, taxing tasks, and reduce waste.

Already well known for its love of automation, the Seattle-based tech firm has installed CartonWrap machines from Italian packaging solutions firm CMC S.r.l. at a limited number of fulfillment centers as it mulls a larger expansion, according to a Reuters report published May 12.

CartonWrap machines address one of the ongoing challenges in e-commerce fulfillment, especially for retailers like Amazon and Walmart, which has also been using the tech for more than three years. Selling an extraordinarily diverse range of goods requires the dexterity to handle and box up a cashmere sweater one minute, for example, and a coffeemaker the next.

In recent years e-commerce companies have come under scrutiny for shipping massive boxes encasing tiny products as consumers pay greater attention to supply chain practices and choices around environmental responsibility. Amazon is credited with advancing innovation in e-commerce shipping when it debuted “frustration-free packaging” guidelines more than a decade ago. Today those rules stipulate that sellers should use packaging that’s 100 percent recyclable and easy to open, and not require an additional “overbox” beyond the cardboard cube containing the actual product in question. When it celebrated the 10th anniversary of frustration-free packaging in 2017, Amazon said the initiative had saved 307 million boxes and 181,000 tons of packaging.

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CMC’s website says the CartonWrap machine targets several issues in warehouses run by large e-commerce firms. The machines eliminate the need to stock boxes of varying sizes because it creates custom-sized boxes around the items it packages. Instead, warehouses just need to stock plain corrugated fanfolds that CartonWrap will manipulate into the most appropriate configuration. What’s more, producing custom boxes in real time means smarter packaging material consumption and less waste, and reduces the need for extraneous fillers added into cartons to protect items from damage.

According to CMC, the machine can build and fill 1,000 boxes per hour or 15 boxes per minute, though Reuters reported speeds of 600 to 700 boxes per hour. By contrast, warehouse workers achieve four to five times fewer than that hourly rate, according to Reuters.

CartonWrap machines could displace 24 jobs, though the report said Amazon’s goal is to “re-purpose” workers into more technical roles. Each CartonWrap installation requires one person to load items into the machine, which scans these products and calculates the most efficient way to package them.