Inside a warehouse the size of seven football fields, hundreds of robots pack roughly 200,000 boxes each day and ship them to customers across China. Four humans babysit.
One is Zou Rui, 25, a soft-spoken engineer who stands for much of his eight-hour shift in New Balance sneakers, monitoring a milky-white mechanical arm. It plunges up and down like a pecking chicken, grabbing parcels with a suction-cupped hand and dropping them into containers on a conveyor belt.
If something looks odd, Zou rushes to fix it. Otherwise, he said, he jots notes in a binder, tracking the arm’s performance for his remote bosses. Or he chats online with his colleagues: two men and a woman, all about his age.
Here, Zou is far from his family’s cornfields in the eastern province of Anhui, far from the bustle of his old workspace with 100 or so people. But he doesn’t feel isolated.
“I don’t get lonely,” he said, “because of the robots.”
Zou works for the Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com, which lauds this warehouse on the outskirts of Shanghai as one of most automated in the world. Analysts say it’s a peek at the future of manual work in China and beyond — a place where a chosen few tend to the machines, while most workers have been rendered obsolete.
Thanks to a “strategic partnership” with Google, that future could be coming soon to the United States.
But chief executive Richard Liu wants to take the high-tech concept even further in a country once known as a hub for cheap labor.
“I hope my company would be 100 percent automation someday,” Liu said at an April retail conference in Madrid. “No human beings anymore.”