Amazon significantly expanded its army of warehouse robots over the past few years, and its use of robotics is poised to grow dramatically. Such growth may, in turn, spur other companies to invest in robotics as well.
It has been widely estimated, and reported recently by The Seattle Times, that Amazon has been adding about 15,000 robots year-on-year. At the end of 2014, Amazon said it had 15,000 robots operating across 10 warehouses. In 2015, that number rose to 30,000, and now Amazon employs 45,000 robots along with 230,000 people, the article reports.
The company uses several types of robots in its warehouses, including large robotic arms capable of moving large pallets of Amazon inventory. However, Amazon is perhaps best known for its use of Kiva robots that automate the picking and packing process at large warehouses to dramatically boost efficiency. The 16-inch tall robots can run at five mph and carry shelves weighing up to 750 pounds filled with bins of inventory. The shelves are delivered to human pickers waiting for the inventory.
Amazon bought robotics firm Kiva Systems in 2012 for $775 million. At the time, Phil Hardin, Amazon’s director of investor relations, said the move is “a bit of an investment that has implications” for a lot of elements of the company’s cost structure, but the company is “happy with Kiva.”
“It’s been a great innovation for us, and we think it makes the warehouse jobs better, and we think it makes our warehouses more productive,” Hardin said.
Amazon was also recently granted a patent for a warehouse robot that would pack boxes full of items. NBC News reports that one scenario detailed in the patent filing explains how a “human operator loads the tray with an inventory item,” such as a coffee mug. The item is grasped by a robotic arm using suction, and is “moved into the appropriate box from a group of boxes that are awaiting ordered items for shipment to customers,” according to the patent filing.
Interestingly, earlier this year, Amazon announced it will create another 100,000 full-time, full-benefit positions over the next year and a half. Jeff Bezos, Amazon Founder and CEO, said in a statement that most of the new jobs will come in Amazon’s customer service network, fulfillment centers and other facilities in local communities throughout the country as part of the company’s continued focus on innovation.
Currently, it is estimated that it takes about a minute or so for a human warehouse worker to fulfill an order, which includes wrapping the item, placing it in a box, taping it up and sending it off for shipping. Conceivably, robots may one day be able to reduce that time significantly, and eventually be much cheaper than their human counterparts, so one must wonder if the humans in Amazon’s warehouses will work alongside robots or be replaced by them.
In the meantime, Amazon isn’t the only company investing in the use of robotics. The 2016 MHI Annual Industry Report, developed in collaboration with Deloitte, found more than half (51 percent) of supply chain and logistics professionals believe robotics and automation will provide a competitive advantage. That’s up from 39 percent of the respondents the previous year. Although only 35 percent of the respondents indicated their company has already adopted robotics, 74 percent of the respondents said their company plans to do so within the next 10 years.
What are your thoughts about the use of robotics? Has your company, or others in the supply chain, adopted robotics? Finally, if use of robotics does become prevalent, what new jobs will it create for humans?