Amazon’s shipping warehouses (or fulfillment centers) get a lot of attention, both for the jobs they bring to areas and the demanding working conditions inside them. Now, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Amazon currently has over 1,400 robots working in three warehouses. The machines are made by Kiva Systems, a startup firm acquired by Amazon in 2012 for $775 million. The robot workers aren’t taking any jobs from people (at least yet), but they do highlight the growing use of automation and big data in almost every sector of business.
The robots at Kiva Systems don’t bring to mind the typical vision of human-like machines – instead, they more closely resemble giant orange Roombas. Their job in the warehouse is to deliver shelves of items to Amazon workers, effectively reversing the typical “picker” job. Instead of walking across the warehouse all day to retrieve different items, workers can be given fixed stations and let the shelves come to them. When a shelf arrives, they select the appropriate item off it, box it, and place it on the exit conveyor belt. Here’s a video of the Kiva robots in action, taken in 2008 by IEEE Spectrum:
The process might appear to be slow, but with a fully equipped robot team in place, workers can be presented with new “pick-faces” (the shelves on which items are kept), up to every six seconds, according to Kiva’s website. Such rapid pacing is one of the reasons why it’s estimated that Kiva’s technology could lower fulfillment costs (typical $3.50), by as much as 40%.
Increased speed isn’t the only benefit to an automated system, however. The robots are dispatched through Kiva’s warehouse management software, which tracks almost everything taking place within the fulfillment center. While the actual robots are the most visible part of the operation, they’re only able make A-to-B trips as directed. It’s the management software that’s pulling all the strings. It can prioritize rush orders, slow down or speed up item pacing based on employee performance, and even route high-value items to more experienced workers. If a worker goes on break, the system will temporarily distribute their orders and adjust the flow of items so as not to create backlogs.
The robots themselves navigate the warehouse by reading barcodes printed along the floor. They’re also equipped with a front camera, in order to identify the correct shelves. It’s estimated that Amazon could save anywhere from $450-900 million each year by deploying the robots across all their fulfillment centers. So far, however, the company has been quiet about their long-term plans. The Journal only discovered the current 1,400 workers through Amazon’s recent Q3 earnings report. Such silence, however, may simply reflect Amazon’s typical poker face.
It’s unclear exactly how workers will feel about such a system. It promises to do away with one of the most exhausting portions of the typical “picker” job (being constantly on the move while working), yet also signals another job that’s being slowly automated. Still, if Kiva can deliver on a large-scale, the market for such automated control systems could be huge, as other companies try to keep up.