Operating over half a million robotic drive units and more than a dozen other robotic systems in its facilities around the world, Amazon’s eCommerce business is deeply invested in robotics technology.
But building out that robot empire has required considerable time and money, with its investment in warehouse automation dating back to 2012 with the acquisition of Kiva Systems for $775 million. Later in 2015, Kiva became Amazon Robotics and the company introduced its warehouse robots in Europe shortly after.
The Kiva purchase set the tone for Amazon’s automation strategy in subsequent years, during which the company invested heavily in a string of robotics firms. Most recently, these have included iRobot, the company behind the Roomba vacuum cleaner, and earlier this month, the Belgian “mechatronics” business Cloostermans, which has been supplying Amazon with industrial robots that move and stack pallets since 2019.
By bringing the Belgium firm in-house, Amazon will be able to direct Cloostermans’ research and development teams specifically toward its needs, as part of broader plans to grow its presence in Europe.
That expanding regional presence includes Amazon’s European Operations Innovation Lab, based in Vercelli, northern Italy, which was opened in 2021 and acts as an R&D center for the company’s supply chain and logistics arm.
The Italian innovation lab adds to similar Amazon’s R&D hubs in Germany, including an artificial intelligence (AI) “lablet” in the university town of Tübingen, where scientists are conducting research in computer vision, representation learning, robotics, machine learning, causal reasoning, deep learning and 3-D modeling.
How Long Until Robots Take Over?
In the most high-tech Amazon fulfillment centers, human employees work alongside a range of autonomous and semi-autonomous robots.
These include the crate-stacking mechanical arms known as palletizers and the computer vision-powered stow stations that use AI to identify items in an order before rolling off to another corner of the warehouse.
With each innovative product, Amazon’s human warehouse employees find their efficiency boosted. And besides helping with the heavy lifting, an array of sensors, automatic conveyors and smart interfaces help staff sort, pack and label deliveries faster than ever before.
All of which poses the question, how long before Amazon warehouses don’t need to employ human workers at all?
In 2019, Scott Anderson, the company’s director of robotics fulfillment, told reporters that full automation, in which humans were entirely removed from the warehouse fulfillment process, was at least a decade away.
For the time being, Amazon continues to optimize its current distribution capabilities, and to increase efficiency the firm has been closing some smaller and older centers and consolidating warehouse operations into larger, high-tech facilities.
Ultimately, the firm’s global logistics network, including its workforce, and the type of work its employees undertake, will undoubtedly be transformed by robotics in the years to come.
Looking at one of the company’s more recently opened distribution centers in the U.K. reveals just how far the technology has already come.
At 550,000 square feet, Amazon’s Swindon fulfillment center is the second largest in the country. And while over 1,000 Amazon employees work at the locations, this year local media reported that over three-quarters of the warehouse’s floor space is reserved for over 6,000 autonomous robots.
Instead of having to move between packing stations and storage shelves to package items, as is done at other Amazon sites, fulfillment staff at the Swindon center can count on these robots to do the heavy lifting for them.
For safety reasons, areas of the warehouse where robots are moving around are off-limits to everyone except technicians, who must wear special vests that identify them to the robots so that they can move safely around them.
But that may not even be a problem for long with the recent emergence of Proteus, Amazon’s first fully autonomous mobile robot that can safely move around in the same space as warehouse employees.
Further along the fulfillment process, Amazon’s delivery robot — Amazon Scout — is being tested in Helsinki, Finland, while a team at the company’s Cambridge Development Center is exploring how to roll out the technology in the U.K.
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