Amazon Invests in Robotics

Recently I have been re-reading Isaac Asimov’s Classic I Robot. What strikes me is that, at least so far, most of the successes in robotics haven’t been in making humanoid machines to do things the way people do things.  Instead, robotics has focused on completely re-thinking the process and then making robots that can do things in the completely re-thought way.

This was reinforced this week when it was announced that Amazon would be buying Kiva systems for $775 million dollars and was apparently beginning to revamp its massive network of fulfillment warehouses.  When Amazon bought and, Amazon acquired two fulfillment centers already using the Kiva system.  And in the words of the old commercial “I liked the shaver so much I bought the company!”, Amazon did just that.  Zappos in particular had been a high profile Kiva customer.

Currently Amazon’s fulfillment warehouses have pick-workers rushing around with carts pulling items from shelves under intense time pressure.  The work is physically demanding, stressful, and accident prone.  Being a fulfillment center pick worker  is frequently listed as one of the worst jobs in America, but one one with a waiting list of workers because about the only job requirement is that you not have a criminal record.

One could imagine that in an Asimov-inspired automated fulfillment warehouse there would be an army of humaniod robot pick-workers pushing the same carts around and pulling the items off of the shelves.  In the Kiva system the (not at all humanoid) short boxy robots drive under the set of shelves called a ‘pod’, lift it, and then carry the entire pod to the packer.  In this completely upside down model, the workers do not move to the shelves but the shelves move to the workers.  Once there, a laser pointer tells the packer where the item is and an indicator light shows which of several concurrently packed orders the item is part of.  Markers on the floor guide the robots placement and travel paths and a central computer plans the elaborate choreography so that a steady stream of items arrive at the packing station without a traffic jam.

The counterintuitive system of moving shelves to people has several advantages that might not be immediately apparent:

  1. Because the robots can travel under the shelves they can route themselves out to the shelves by traveling underneath and then back using the aisles.  That makes the entire floor space usable for circulation and the flow pattern efficiently one-way.
  2. Other than the packing stations themselves, the warehouse can be dark and only heated and cooled enough to prevent damage to the merchandise.
  3. The entire warehouse is constantly being re-optimized.  If the main computer knows that a product is likely to be needed again soon it will instruct the robot to park it in a nearby space.  If it is less likely to be needed soon it will be parked far away.
  4. The workers stay in one area, making them easier to supervise and reducing employee problems such as theft.

The following video illustrates the system in action.

Currently under the Kiva system workers are needed mostly for two things:  to pull products from the ‘pods’ into boxes for filling an order and from taking newly arrived stock and putting them on the ‘pods’  However that might change.  Once Amazon converts a majority of their warehouse spaces to Kiva, as appears to be their intent, they might then use their influence to ask suppliers to deliver merchandise already packed onto Kiva Pods!  One could then imagine the doors of the truck being opened to a waiting marching band of Kiva robots who simultaneously enter, lift, and roll out pods to their individual places on the warehouse floor.  From loading dock to available for shipping in less than a minute!

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