If you’re a tea drinker, you probably look forward to your cup of chamomile at the end of a long day. If you’re running low on tea bags, you probably count on Amazon Prime to replenish your supply. And when your caffeine-free fix arrives at your front door, you likely have a handful of robots (as well as quite a few humans) to thank.
If visions of Rosie from “The Jetsons” come to mind when you think of robots, think again. The robots enlisted within Amazon’s Fulfillment Centers aren’t humanoids that roll around making quips in monotone voices. Rather, they are robotic arms and self-propelling carts designed to assist the associates, drive faster shipping times, maximize inventory, and keep cost at a price the customer wants to see.
It’s not humans vs. robots, it’s humans + robots
The debate over whether robots will one day displace humans in the workplace rages on, but Amazon isn’t waiting around to see who wins. Instead, the company is providing a glimpse of the future within many of its fulfillment centers, where humans and robots work harmoniously to get packages to customers on time.
Amazon runs 125 fulfillment centers worldwide. In 25 of them, robots and people work together to pick, sort, transport, and stow packages. While it’s true robotic animation has taken over certain duties, such as carrying totes and picking items off shelves, it’s making the lives of associates easier by performing the less desirable, more tedious tasks.
Amazon fulfillment centers are busy places, with packages and people moving around constantly. In centers equipped with robotics, employees now have to lift and walk less. Robots pick up heavy items to prep them for shipping or for stowage. When packers are getting boxes ready to ship out, they don’t need to look for items on the shelves anymore.
“Items now come directly to employees,” says Lindsay Campbell, an Amazon spokesperson. “It’s great to keep employees focused on tasks where a high judgment is needed. For example, humans can look at a pallet of maple syrup and understand how best to unpack it. Robots aren’t yet able to easily detect what kind of liquid is in a container or if it’s spilled within its packaging. Humans can easily understand what they’re unpacking and then find a way to safely unpack it without causing further damage.”
Several types of robots are currently “employed” at Amazon fulfillment centers. Palletizers are robotic arms with grippers that identify and grab boxes from conveyor belts and stack them on pallets for shipping or stowage. Another type of robotic arm, the robostow, lifts pallets of inventory to different levels in a Fulfillment Center or places them on drive units to be carried to their destination. The drive unit itself is a robot that transports packages around the facilities. Currently, Amazon has 100,000 drive units in locations around the globe, as well as six robostows and 30 palletizers.
In the past, associates would have hurried from place to place within a fulfillment center to pick and pack items, but now they are able to stay at their stations while robots do the heavy lifting. What’s more, humans can focus on the more sophisticated tasks, which at times require split-second judgment calls and spontaneity, while robots handle programmed tasks. To observe the activity within a robotics-equipped Fulfillment Center is to watch a carefully synchronized dance between humans and robots.
Leading the way
Amazon started using robotics after its 2012 acquisition of Boston-based Kiva Systems, since renamed Amazon Robotics. At the time, it was Amazon’s second largest acquisition, and a strong signal of the company’s intent to lead the way in creating collaborative, automated environments with humans and robots.
Since the acquisition, teams of roboticists and engineers have worked closely with associates to incorporate new technologies to streamline processes, improve safety, and increase efficiency. Humans aren’t about to be displaced by robots at Amazon. If anything, they are playing a significant role in shaping the future of the company.
“The technical teams are working with associates to create and develop this new frontier of technology,” says Campbell. “Over the years, some of our best ideas have come from associates, and we believe this will continue to be the trend. Working with these systems day in and day out, they know where the gaps are and have great ideas for improvements.”
Robots increase efficiency and safety at fulfillment centers. They make it possible to store 40 percent more inventory, which in turn makes it easier to fulfill Amazon Prime and other orders on time since it’s less likely an item will run out. As such, robotics makes a significant contribution in Amazon’s drive to deliver a smarter, faster, more consistent customer experience.
Another benefit to robots? Job creation. Since their introduction in 2012, Amazon has added more than 300,000 full-time jobs globally, including positions in IT and in servicing and maintaining robots. Plus, the fulfillment centers that have robots often have higher employment numbers because inventory is moved at a faster pace, which requires extra associates.
More to come
Additional robotics-related innovations are on the way. “In the future, we’ll see more and more packaging that’s optimized for robotics, such as non-variable, rigid cuboidal shapes that are easier for robotic units to pick and move,” says Campbell.
And if you’re wondering if the robots get tired after a long shift, rest assured. Like all fulfillment center associates, the robots need breaks, too, and they know when it’s time to recharge. Once they hit a certain point, they’ll take themselves to a charging station and fuel up for their next shift—all in plenty of time to ensure that chamomile tea arrives promptly at your door.