Amazon Unleashes Robot Army To Send Your Holiday Packages Faster | KUOW News and Information

Amazon Unleashes Robot Army To Send Your Holiday Packages Faster

Dec 1, 2014
Originally published on December 3, 2014 6:32 am

For many online retailers, Cyber Monday is likely to be the peak shopping day of the year. To handle the onslaught of orders, Amazon has begun rolling out a new robot army.

The Amazon order-fulfillment center in Tracy, Calif., is more than a million square feet — or 28 football fields, if you prefer — filled with orange and yellow bins flying this way and that on conveyor belts. Chances are, if you ordered a bunch of items in the San Francisco Bay Area recently, Amazon put that box together here.

"Whether it's consumables or toys or electronics, with 3,500,000 items plus in this building, the odds are, pretty much anything you wanted was likely here," says Dave Clark, Amazon's senior vice president of worldwide operations and customer service.

At most warehouses, goods are held on shelves, and it's up to humans to go out into them to stock or retrieve stuff. But with technology that Amazon acquired when it purchased Kiva Systems in March 2012, the goods move to the humans. Orange robots the shape and size of ottomans zip under shelves, lift them up and whisk them to stations where people like Amazon's Reginaldo Rosales are waiting.

As each shelf arrives next to Rosales, packed to the gills with all sorts of items, a computer terminal displays the specific thing he's supposed to grab — in this case a thermometer — and where on the shelves it is.

"Now it's telling us the Monopoly electronic banking game," Rosales says. "We pick the item, we give a six-sided check — make sure it's not damaged — and it tells us what bin. And you confirm it."

Kiva's concept has been around for years now, but this rollout provides an opportunity to see it at great scale.

With this system, not only is there no need for workers to march for miles up and down the aisles — there's no need for aisles at all, which means Amazon can squeeze 50 percent more product into its warehouses.

You might presume this means Amazon would hire fewer humans, but Senior VP David Clark says Amazon is hiring more people — 14 percent more than during 2013's holiday season — to accommodate increased demand.

"As these buildings get more selection, they do more volume," Clark says.

Besides, an entirely mechanical workforce simply wouldn't work yet, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Andrew McAfee, for the same reasons robots still would make lousy doubles tennis partners.

"Robots aren't really, really good at manual dexterity. Their vision systems are often not as good as our vision systems," McAfee says.

But the co-author of The Second Machine Age says the robots are at least as good as people at covering ground in warehouses and hauling merchandise. So why not let them do it?

There are 15,000 Kiva machines whisking around Amazon warehouses across the country; the company's engineers already are developing a next-generation robot.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you buy something online this Cyber Monday, a robot may fill your order. Amazon has an army of them. Here's Rachel Myrow of our NPR member station KQED.

RACHEL MYROW, BYLINE: The Amazon fulfillment center in Tracy, California, is big, more than a million square feet - or 28 football fields, if you prefer - filled with orange and yellow bins flying this way and that on conveyor belts. Chances are if you ordered a bunch of items in the San Francisco Bay Area recently, Amazon put that box together here.

DAVE CLARK: Whether it's consumables or toys or electronics with three-and-a-half million items plus in this building, the odds are pretty much anything you wanted was likely here.

MYROW: That's Dave Clark, Amazon's senior vice president of worldwide operations and customer service. He's leading us on a tour to show how the company has implemented the technology it purchased when it bought Kiva Systems about two-and-a-half years ago. At most warehouses, goods are held on shelves, and it's up to humans to put that stuff there and retrieve it. With Kiva, the shelves move. Orange robots the shape and size of ottomans zip under shelves, lift them up and whisk them to stations where people are waiting.

REGINALDO ROSALES: Now it's asking for a thermometer, 2A, that would be on the bottom.

MYROW: Reginaldo Rosales stands in front of a set of yellow bins. As each shelf shows up next to him packed to the gills with all sorts of items, a computer terminal displays a visual of the specific thing he's supposed to pull off.

ROSALES: Now it's telling us the Monopoly Electronic Banking Game, pick the item, give a six-sided check, make sure it's not damaged, and it tells us what bin. And you confirm it.

MYROW: There's no need for workers to march for miles up and down aisles. There's no need for aisles between the shelves. Amazon can squeeze 50 percent more product into its warehouses. Kiva's concept has been around for years now, but this rollout provides an opportunity to see it at great scale. You might presume this means Amazon would higher fewer humans, but Senior VP Dave Clark says Amazon is hiring more people - 14 percent more than last holiday season to accommodate the demand.

CLARK: Because we're growing. As these buildings get more selection, they do more volume. The growth is continuing to drive hiring.

MYROW: But what's to say an entirely mechanical workforce couldn't do better, without the need for breaks? At least for now, there is a technological challenge that keeps the Amazons of the world from completely replacing people. It's the same kind of challenge that would make it difficult for a robot to attend a dinner party.

ANDREW MCAFEE: Robots aren't really, really good at manual dexterity. Their vision systems are often not as good as our vision systems.

MYROW: Andrew McAfee is a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the book "The Second Machine Age." McAfee takes a generally positive position on the rollout of robots.

MCAFEE: Let the person take the part off the shelf and put it in the box. We have an advantage there. But we have no advantage walking up and down miles of corridors in warehouses. Let the robot do that.

MYROW: The robot, in other words, makes an excellent pack animal. Already there are 15,000 Kiva robots whisking about Amazon warehouses across the country. And beyond this expansion, there's another one coming. Amazon engineers are working on the next-generation robot. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Myrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.