Has The Robotic Warehouse Arrived?

robotic warehouses
May 30, 2015

Amazon the world’s largest online shopping company introduced 15,000 robots into 10 of its warehouses last year. Their function is to move shelves of stock so that the human workers can pick and pack the orders. Innovation and streamlining its workflow is a key to Amazon’s success and it seems the Robotic Warehouse has arrived and robots may be coming to a warehouse near you soon.

What Are The Robots Doing?

The Robots designed by Kiva Systems (a company that was acquired by Amazon in 2012) are carrying shelves of stock that are up 1.2 meters wide, 2 meters tall and up to 340 kilograms in weight. The Robots are controlled by a central computer and navigate their way around the warehouse by scanning coded stickers on the floor. The robots select the shelves required for order fulfilment by using a bar code system. The robot slides under the shelf and moves it to where the human worker is picking and packing items for delivery.  The robot shines a red beam of light on the item required for packing and the human picks it and packs it. When the task is complete and the human worker is ready for the next item/s they press a button so that the robot knows that they are ready for the next picking and packing task.

Amazon claim the introduction of the robots has made their warehouse to item dispatch time three times quicker than it was.  They also say that the number of staff employed has not been affected by the introduction of the robots. The robots seem to have enabled the human workers to work more effectively with less carrying and less walking around the centre, the innovation has been welcomed by the warehouse staff.

Amazon also say’s its new robotic workforce has enabled the warehouse to store more items as the shelves are now positioned closer together. But this is just the tip of the iceberg….

Amazon’s new robotic challenge — The Picking Challenge

Amazon has recently announced its Picking Challenge and has invited robot designers from around the world to participate in this event. It will form part of the International Conference on Robotics and Automation to be held towards the end of May 2015.

They are looking now for a robot design that can pick items from the shelves, including small and delicate items and pack them ready for shipping. This means Amazon is planning a fully automated warehouse sometime soon. They are looking for nimble fingered robots that can pick glass jars, biscuits, sweets, small toys, plastic safety glasses and glue without damaging the items and then pack them. It certainly is a challenge and the winner will be awarded $20,000 and up to $6000 expenses paid for making the trip to Seattle on the 26th — 30th May 2015 with their robot.

The challenge will focus on 25 items to be picked and packed within 20 minutes and each robot will be given a score for its performance on each of the test items. The robot will not be allowed to be manipulated or controlled by the designer remotely.

The prestige and future co-operation for the best robot and its designer will for sure be worth more than the prize fund award. This certainly means that Amazon and its Robotic arm Kiva Systems is seriously looking to design a complete robotic workforce that can completely automate warehouse functions.  It has now proven its robots can carry out jobs in warehouses and in the future in service industries.

The story doesn’t end here either…

Delivery by Drone

Amazon is testing drone flights for delivering its merchandise from the warehouse to its clients. Currently test flights are being carried out in the UK and in the USA.  But for now it seems the idea is still in early planning stages. The company has said ‘The goal of this new delivery system is to get packages into the customers hands in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles’. They are currently dependent on postal services and couriers for delivery services.

It seems they are planning to make a robotic workforce and service from the moment an item is ordered to the moment it is delivered to the client.

What Does All This Mean For Warehouse Planning?

The Kiva Robots seem to be able to perform a great function that relives some of the physical burden from picking and packing staff. They can definitely enable warehouses with smaller stock items to perform more effectively and the initial investment in the robot will soon be balanced by the potential workforce saving that the robot performs. Amazon being the largest online shopping company in the world has a huge network of over 100 fulfilment centres (warehouses) around the world and its business is booming. This is why at the moment there have been no job loses as a result of the robots introduction to its warehouses.

The robots have enabled the warehouses to hold more stock, although actual figures have not yet been published to show the evidence or the increase in storage capacity, but it seems the Kiva robots will perform a great functionality for moving small and medium sized goods on shelves or inside containers to picking and packing areas.

It is still too early to see how the robots will affect the future for warehouse functionalities but it is clear that robots will have a place to work in the warehouse setting. All eyes will be watching the International Conference on Robotics and Automation to see how far away we are away from the fully robotic and automated warehouse.