The autonomous mobile robot market is one of the hottest growth areas in robotics – ever since Amazon purchased Kiva Systems in March 2012, changing its name to Amazon Robotics. Dozens of vendors now offer mobile robots to assist e-commerce, third-party logistics, and other warehouse operations companies move products from shelves to packing stations.
A recent report by Interact Analysis predicts double-digit growth in the autonomous mobile robot space over the next few years, with a $7 billion market predicted by 2022. “The proliferation of e-commerce and omni-channel retailing is driving huge demand for automation as retailers strive to catch up with Amazon and its delivery capabilities,” Interact stated.
At the recent MIT Technology Review EmTechNext conference, Tye Brady, Amazon Robotics’ chief technologist, spoke about the use of robots in warehouse operations and their ability to address labor shortages and improve fulfillment delivery time.
Robotics Business Review chatted with Brady about these and other issues around robotics and e-commerce:
Q: Have you been surprised by the growth of autonomous mobile robots by other companies?
Brady: We don’t pay attention to what other companies in the industry are doing. Our priority always has been, and always will be, to focus on finding new ways to better serve our customers.
Q: How much credit does robotics get for Amazon’s ability to deliver products within the two-day window for Amazon Prime — 50%, 75%?
Brady: We need advanced technology and automation to meet customer demand — it’s just that simple. But the speed we are able to achieve in shipping and delivering is attributed to both advancements in robotics and automation, as well as the dedication of our skilled associates.
Without our teams’ commitment to delivering the best possible customer experience and value, we would not be able to deliver the efficiencies we do today.
Q: You mentioned in your EmTechNext presentation that all of the products stored in the racks that the robots move around are placed randomly. Was this always the case, or was this something that was learned along the way as robots were delivering products to the human pickers? What other things did you learn or change about the warehouse process as a result of integrating robots into the process?
Brady: We’ve learned a lot about our fulfillment centers since integrating robotics, but random stow has always been a part of our inventory management and storage process. Using this method, we’re able to stow and scan inventory at faster speeds that also make the picking process much easier.
Technology certainly supports this method, but it was not the deciding factor when implemented throughout our fulfillment centers.
Q: Are new distribution or fulfillment centers built with robots in mind, or are the robots designed to operate in facilities that are still designed around humans? Are there warehouses or order-fulfillment facilities that couldn’t operate without robots?
Brady: Not all new fulfillment centers will include robotics. There are a lot of factors we take into consideration when planning, and our priority will always be ensuring we are meeting customer needs.
If the team determines it makes sense to include robotics into a new fulfillment center, we work with those teams to ensure they’re properly installed and ready for associate use. Our fulfillment centers couldn’t operate without our associates. They are the true backbone of this company and without their dedication, we wouldn’t be able to deliver the customer experience we do today.
Q: Many of the mobile robots work with human pickers who do the picking/placing, but we’ve seen some operations that also are using robots to do that work. What are some of the challenges that you see to achieving this “holy grail” of mobile robots with arms that can grab products?
Brady: We regularly look at our operations and evaluate how we can bring technology to create new solutions for employees. In the case of picking, items now come directly to employees. It’s great to keep employees in roles where high judgment is needed.
For example, humans can look at a pallet of maple syrup and understand how best to unpack it. Robots aren’t yet able to easily detect what kind of liquid is in a container, or if it’s spilled within its packaging.
Humans can easily understand what they’re unpacking, and then find a way to safely unpack it without causing further damage. Robots looking to do the same task will have a much harder time and won’t be able to make judgment calls.
Q: Does Amazon Robotics expect to continue running robotics challenges to monitor and advance the state of the art? How much is it using pick-and-place robots now?
Brady: We are not hosting the robotics challenge this year, but we will continue to find new opportunities and ways in which we can deliver a better customer experience. Right now, our robots are primarily focused on moving products throughout our fulfillment centers so that our associates can focus on more challenging tasks.
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Q: Can mobile robots from Amazon Robotics — either new ones or in new distribution centers — help Amazon achieve same-day delivery on a wide-scale basis, or will other solutions be used, such as human local delivery, last-mile delivery by autonomous vehicles, or drone delivery, to achieve this?
Brady: There are many factors that contribute to Amazon’s impressive delivery times, but the real secret is how humans and robots work together to create a symphony of productivity. We’re always innovating and experimenting on behalf of customers and the businesses that sell and grow on Amazon to create faster, lower-cost delivery choices.
Q: Does Amazon Robotics expect to purchase robotics companies for the last-mile solution?
Brady: We do not comment on future road maps.
Opportunities for associates to grow, give ideas
Q: What is the bigger hiring challenge – hiring humans to work in a warehouse, or hiring robotics experts to help create new robots?
Brady: The fact is, we desperately need people for both roles. Without our associates working in our fulfillment centers, customers wouldn’t receive orders within the promised time frame.
We also need people who are able to work as technicians, engineers, and product developers. In fact, because these are such in-demand jobs, Amazon offers a variety of training programs to prepare our associates for careers that continue to create opportunity for the next generation for work.
We’re also paying for our associates to go back to school and take courses related to robotics as part of our innovative Career Choice program, a benefit that prepays 95% of tuition for courses related to in-demand fields, regardless of their relevance to jobs at Amazon.
Eligible courses include robotics, computer science, and engineering that will build associates’ skills for jobs of the future at Amazon or elsewhere.
We continue to hire and create more jobs at our fulfillment centers and across the company in fields like computer science, software development, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, control engineering, product development, safety, technical services, manufacturing, and more.
Q: Is the Amazon Robotics division only allowed to work on the mobile robot space, or is it participating in other robotics efforts within the company, such as drone deliveries or consumer robots?
Brady: One of our leadership principles at Amazon is “bias for action.” We know that our associates often are the ones who have the best ideas and solutions. It is our goal to create an environment where every employee, regardless of education, business, level or background, feel empowered to bring new ideas to the table.
In fact, we regularly hold ‘Kaizens,’ a program named for the Japanese term meaning “change for the better.” These are opportunities for our associates and teams to bring new ideas to the table that might help simplify the work process.
Because of this program, we’ve improved the designs of our inventory pods and streamlined the customer-returns process. Both ideas were brought to us by associates and helped to improve the business and work environment.
Q: How much of Amazon’s robots would qualify as collaborative, and how many are separate — say, for packing or materials handling?
Brady: Our fulfillment centers are great examples of how humans and robots are collaborating to achieve a goal. In fact, all of our robots require human interaction to complete a task. Without the humans behind the machines, our robots wouldn’t be able to operate at the speed or precision that they do today.
Q: You also mentioned at the EmTech event that Amazon Robotics has a “tech sandbox” in North Reading, Mass. Can you explain the reasoning behind this, or the benefits of the project?
Brady: Engineers need to build in order to be innovative. This “sandbox” is really just a place where our teams of engineers, scientists and roboticists, test new innovations and work to find ways in which we can improve the customer experience.
The goal is to continually search for areas where we can enhance efficiencies and create more technology-rich environments for our associates as we continually hear they like working with new technologies
I’m extremely proud of the work these teams do and excited to see what they reimagine next. It is wonderfully exciting to be surrounded by such smart people who are applying their talents every day to real-world applications in robotics.