In late November of 2018, the Memphis Business Journal unearthed a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) filing from the Memphis-based FedEx company. With the trademark named “FedEx Sameday Bot,” it isn’t difficult to realize that the shipping and logistics company is at least looking into offering same-day delivery service using robots for mainly shipping and delivery services, such as pick-up, transportation, and delivery of documents and packages.
While this move is in line with the overall industry push towards automation, the move still begs the question, “are the jobs safe?”
To answer such a vital question, take a look at Kernersville, North Carolina. In early 2017, FedEx invested in automated “tuggers,” or RT4500 autonomous tuggers built by a Massachusetts-based robotics company. The first driverless tugger arrived a few months before the others; while it tugged freight around the 630,000-square-foot freight depot, it drew a three-dimensional digital map that would then be shared with the additional tuggers that followed.
While the company was moving in the only direction they could to remain a profitable business, employees initially saw the new development as opposition to employee job retention. However, over time, employees recognized that the tuggers assist employees, rather than replacing them.
It would be naive to imagine that jobs weren’t affected by this shift, but the impact of the change was trivial in comparison to the expectation. The bots replaced twenty-five jobs, but for a business that employs 1,300 people and creates 100 new positions a year, the jobs lost were but a blip. Rather than being laid off, employees were more likely to see a revision to their previous work-requirements. Those who once drove tuggers could transition to another position, such as packing the tuggers.
Whether the move to expand automation in other locations of FedEx comes in response to the success seen in North Carolina is unknown. However, it is clear that the evolution of FedEx is far from over. The technological innovation investments made by FedEx will indeed create radical change in the logistics landscape, from small individual shipments to the movement of global fleets.
As FedEx CEO and chairman, Fred Smith says, “The World turns on innovation. FedEx is intent on innovating for good. We believe we’re responsible for creating not only business value for our stakeholders but societal value for our world.”