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Giant Eagle boosts competiveness with Seegric VGVs

Monday, June 19, 2017

Bob Zorn's coworkers were waiting for him when he started his shift at Giant Eagle's warehouse in Pittsburgh.

The two blue, autonomous pallet jacks sat idle near the receiving bays. Their stately calm was out of place in the chaos — organized chaos they call it — of the warehouse in Fairywood.

Even at shift change, workers on pallet jacks and fork lifts honk as they whiz by. But the robots — they don't have names, just numbers, one and two — don't move. Not until Zorn tells them too.

Zorn, an 18-year veteran of the warehouse, just learned how to work with the robots. He was a little nervous and referred to notes written on a worn piece of paper.

He turned them on and directed one to slide its jack under a pallet of canned fruit. Zorn punched in the robot's starting location on a keypad. He told it where to take the fruit and where to return after it had dropped it off.

Then Zorn, 54, of Crafton Heights hit a big green button, stepped back, and watched the robot take off.

"If this machine can work with our workers here, it can work anywhere," said Joe Hurley, senior vice president of supply chain for Giant Eagle.

If robots are coming for our jobs, they haven't yet at Giant Eagle's warehouse.

Giant Eagle hasn't cut its workforce of about 250 since introducing robots nearly 10 years ago, Hurley said. The Seegrid robots work in only a few rows of the 440,000-square-foot warehouse. Until recently, they didn't even travel to the back of the warehouse. Employees were skeptical at first, Hurley said. And worried they would lose their jobs.

"We had to get folks to understand what this robot does and then let time prove it," Hurley said.


Robots have made headlines recently for what they can do — make pizzas , climb Jimmy Fallon's leg , say a prayer for you — and for what people fear they will do: take our jobs.

Studies have tried to predict which jobs are most at risk. The website combines data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and a 2013 University of Oxford study on automation ­— a study that found that 47 percent of jobs will be automated within the next two decades — to answer that question.

• Nurse: 0.9 percent chance of automation, totally safe

• Journalist: 11 percent chance of automation, no worries

• Truck driver: 79 percent of chance of automation, robots are watching

• Accountant: 94 percent chance of automation, you are doomed

But for every study predicting doom, there is evidence that automation is not something to be feared. Despite recent advancements in automation, about 34.7 million more Americans have jobs now than 25 years ago, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Weekly earnings have nearly doubled in that time.

RELATED: More data needed to predict robots' effects on job market, CMU prof says

Over the last 50 to 60 years, industries have automated at a rapid rate while still maintaining healthy employment, said Mehdi Miremadi, a partner at McKinsey & Company who worked on the firm's report on robots and jobs that was released in January. Agriculture automated in the early 20th Century. Industrial automation exploded after World War II. The emergence of computers and the Internet automated office processes and procedures.

Even the basketball-shooting robot Hoops was at it for 20 years at the Carnegie Science Center before he was retired and replaced by a new robot this year.

"I think it's the fear of unknown," Miremadi said. "When we don't know how things are going to play out, we let our imaginations run wild."

The McKinsey report found that about half the tasks people do now could be automated in the future. About 5 percent of jobs right now could be automated. In about 60 percent of jobs, there is at least 30 percent of tasks that a robot could do, the report found. A robot could do about 25 percent of a CEO's job and about 20 percent of a landscaper's job. Automation will change the labor force, Miremadi said.

"But to assume that automation will lead to massive unemployment misses the major lessons from past waves of automation," Miremadi said. "Maybe we need automation. If fact, if automation doesn't happen, economic growth will stagnate."


That's what Jim Rock fears. Rock is the CEO of Seegrid, the company that makes the robots navigating the Giant Eagle warehouse floor. Giant Eagle is the majority shareholder at Seegrid, a CMU spinout company, and invested $25 million in 2016 . Rock, who joined Seegrid in 2014, said companies have to innovate to stay alive, whether it's Seegrid's customers like Giant Eagle, Jaguar Land Rover or Daimler or U.S. Steel, where Rock started his career in the early 1990s.

"I acknowledge that technology is disruptive, but I also firmly believe in the critical nature of investing in competitive advantage to keep companies healthy and alive," Rock said. "The flip side is, if you do nothing, other companies in other countries will invest in this technology, and then you'll be left with no company and no jobs."
Rock saw this first hand at U.S. Steel. He was a supervisor on the night shift at the Edgar Thomson Steel Works in Braddock. It was the best job he ever had, Rock said while sitting in his spacious office at Seegrid's headquarters in Findlay, his two dogs, Ivy and Josie, at his side. Rock had an industrial and manufacturing engineering degree from Penn State and was in U.S. Steel's management training program. One of his tasks was to implement a new automation machine, the continuous caster, which cut the amount of time between pouring the molten steel and producing a slab ready to be rolled, into the mill's operations.

Steel was already in a tumble when Rock started at Edgar Thomson. His entire childhood was shaped by layoffs, unemployment, pain and suffering in his community from the decline of steel, he said. He took continuous casting seriously, traveling around the world see how other steel mills used it.

"It saved the mill," Rock said of the technology.

Rock pointed to studies that show one robot on the factory floor can create two or three jobs. A 2011 study from the International Federation of Robotics found that 1 million robots created nearly 3 million jobs. They will be different jobs, Rock said, but better jobs.

"Jobs that take advantage of their creativity, and their skills," Rock said.

Gregory Hudas agreed. Hudas works for the U.S. Department of Defense and is in charge of starting the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute in Pittsburgh. Among the institute's early endeavors will be job training and education programs. Hudas said as automation transforms industries, employees have to be told that they will be retrained to participate.

Job growth will come through working with robots, Hudas and Rock said.

"What you're going to see, and it may take a while, but you're going to see a transformation. The jobs are going to be a lot higher skilled, the pay will be a lot better," Hudas said. "Yes, I think there will definitely be an upswing in jobs."


Robots at Giant Eagle haven't created jobs, but they haven't cost jobs, either.

The Seegrid pallet jacks perform one function. They take groceries and other products that come into the warehouse to a place for storage. They are about 33 percent more efficient than human-operated pallet jacks performing the same task, Hurley said.

"If it took a person three minutes, it takes this machine two minutes," Hurley said. "But if we're putting away hundreds of thousands of pallets a year, those minutes add up."

The robots at the warehouse have allowed Giant Eagle to shift employees to jobs like building customized pallets of groceries for individual stores, working with truck drivers there to drop off and pick up or cleaning. Some employees have grumbled about the new job assignments, Hurley said. Jobs like building pallets of groceries for individual stores are tougher than moving products around for storage. But the robots are safer and good for Giant Eagle's bottom line.

"Travel is our enemy," Hurley said, noting that workers drive the equivalent of a trip to Myrtle Beach and back in a day. "If we can reduce manned travel, which this does, it's really good for us."

Still, robots and jobs keep some of the top roboticists up at night.

Chris Urmson, a robotics whiz at CMU who went on to head Google's self-driving car efforts and later co-founded Aurora Innovation , an autonomous car startup with an office in Pittsburgh, said balancing the economic benefits of automation with the effect it might have on jobs is key.

WATCH: Chris Urmsom: Prespectives on self-driving cars

"This is one of the things that I have a hard time sleeping sometimes thinking about some of these challenges," Urmson said to a group of students at CMU in April. "And this is not novel to self-driving cars... It happened in the industrial revolution. It happened in automotive over the last 50 years. It happened through globalization, and as a society we just haven't really done an awesome job of anticipating these things and building the retraining programs into the place."

"There's no simple answer to this question."

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer.  Reach him at, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.