Michael Kenward visits Amazon’s Baltimore technology test-bed and explains how robotics underpins a fundamental change in its operations.
After you negotiate airport style security, and walk by the posters advertising free flu jabs, the first impressions on entering Amazon’s high-tech warehouse near Baltimore are the noise and the lack of people.
The din comes from miles of conveyors that carry the many thousands of packages that leave each ‘fulfilment centre’ – , as Amazon dubs its warehouses – every day.
A product’s journey through Amazon’s system begins with what at first glance appears to be a somewhat counter-intuitive approach to product stowing – whereby inventory entering the warehouse is deliberately randomly distributed by teams of “Stowers” into bins within 2-metre-high storage pods carried by mobile robot drive units.
Such a chaotic approach to storing inventory – dubbed random stow by Amazon – would have once been unthinkable. But by randomly distributing items in this way and using an overarching IT system known as Amazon Web Services (AWS) to bring together the data on every single item within the system, pickers are able to locate products far more quickly than if they had to visit a dedicated shelf for each product.
The system also makes far more efficient use of every available inch of space. “We can squeeze more stuff into the same footprint,” explained Tye Brady, Chief Technologist of Amazon Robotics, “We want our large objects to be mixed with our small objects to be mixed with our medium objects because it volume optimises.”
Although the system is underpinned by robotics and automation Baltimore’s technology test bed still employs around 3000 workers, or “associates” as the company calls them, most of whom stand at picking stations waiting for the robots to glide up bearing their ‘pods’.
Pickers then consult a screen and select from the appropriate bins whatever customers have ordered. These items are placed into “totes” that travel along conveyor belts to packing stations where workers put orders into the familiar cardboard boxes that go back on to the conveyors where more robots label the boxes for their destinations.
Baltimore – 10/18/18 – Operations at Amazon’s Baltimore Fulfillment Center today. Credit: Marty Katz/baltimorephotographer.comThe rise of the robots at Amazon started in earnest in 2012, when the company paid $775 million for the robotics company Kiva Systems (now known as Amazon Robotics). The acquisition, Amazon’s second biggest deal at the time, was for a company, formed in 2003, that had previously raised a mere $33 million in funding. Amazon Robotics has since produced more than 100,000 mobile robots or drive units for the company.
Since the acquisition the technology has evolved, and today’s fourth generation robots have more intelligence and carrying capacity in smaller devices than earlier models.
The robots are part of what Tye Brady describes as “a symphony of humans and machines working together”. But in reality ‘working together’ means that robots and humans are kept well apart. The robots carry around those heavy pods in huge football-pitch-sized caged areas, on floors with bar codes that tell them exactly where they are, and communicating over a WiFi network with a central control system.