Last May, Jeff Bezos, CEO of e-commerce giant Amazon, told investors the company planned to significantly increase the number of robots it uses to fulfill customer orders by year’s end. At the time, approximately 1,000 robots were reported to be in use in Amazon’s warehouses. Bezos said the company planned to deploy approximately another 9,000 robots.
It now seems the company is well on its way toward achieving that goal. Amazon has outfitted several U.S. warehouses with wheeled robots that move stocked shelves to workers, instead of having employees seek items in long aisles of merchandise, according to people familiar with the matter, an article in the Wall Street Journal reports. Last summer, Amazon replaced four floors of fixed shelving with the robots in a 1.2-million-square-foot warehouse in Tracy, Calif., about 60 miles east of San Francisco, the people said.
The robots are built by Amazon’s subsidiary Kiva Systems, which it acquired two years ago for $775 million to increase the level of automation in its warehouses. All inventory is stored on “pods,” which are essentially cabinets. When a robot identifies the pod containing an item to be shipped, it swivels under the pod and lifts the pod off of the ground. The practice then calls for the robot to carry the pod through the warehouse to human workers, who will pull the individual items from the pods and pack them for shipment.
At the robot-equipped Amazon warehouses, 20 or more shelf-toting robots may be lined up in front of a picker, sources told the Wall Street Journal. Employees remove items from the robot-carried shelves and place them in bins, which are transported via conveyor belts to other workers who box the goods, label the boxes and place them on trucks for delivery.
Now, pickers at the facility stand in one place and wait for robots to bring four-foot-by-six-foot shelving units to them, sparing the workers from walking what sometimes amounted to as much as 20 miles a day through the warehouse, the Wall Street Journal article reports. Consequently, employees at some robot-equipped warehouses are now expected to pick and scan at least 300 items an hour, compared with 100 under the old system, current and former workers told the Wall Street Journal.
People familiar with the matter said the Kiva robots have been deployed at warehouses in California, Kentucky and Texas, among others, according to the Wall Street Journal. The full list of warehouses using the robots couldn’t be learned.
The robots can help Amazon easily cater to demand during the peak holiday season, when its customer traffic is at a high. The holiday season is crucial for Amazon as sales in November and December account for a major part of its annual revenues, a Zacks Equity Research report notes. Furthermore, with Amazon announcing bigger and better-selling holiday deals this year, faster sorting and packaging operations have become essential, the report explains.
This isn’t the end of Amazon’s plans for automation either. In an attempt to beef up its delivery system as a means to provide better customer services, the company has plans to develop a drone-based delivery service using airborne robotic drones to deliver packages to consumers in 30 minutes. In July, Amazon had requested the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to fly drones out of their test facility.
The FAA, however, is expected next month to propose rules for commercial drones that would mandate operators have pilot licenses and limit drone flights to daytime hours, below 400 feet and within sight of the person at the controls. It would seem those rules would prevent delivery drones being developed by Amazon and Google and others, but that remains to be seen.
In the meantime, what are your thoughts on Amazon’s use of robots in warehouses? Will this practice help Amazon continue to meet rising consumer expectations? Does your company have plans to use robots in warehouses?