22 May 2015
The leader in eCommerce is making a wave in warehouse efficiency. Amazon.com has been opening up new fulfillment centers at a brisk pace and introducing robots and other high technology features to make their operations more efficient.
One example is the warehouse center in Tracy, California. There are about 1,500 full-time laborers working in 1.2 million square feet and they are getting a hand from about 3,000 robots that gracefully glide along coded stickers on the floor and receiving and decoding commands sent wireless from one central computer.
These squat orange gizmos look like the stones that curlers navigate across ice using brooms that we see at the winter Olympics every four years. They are specifically designed to slide under and stop directly below the shelves. Then they are strong enough to lift four feet wide shelves that have 750 pounds of merchandise piled on them.
The bar codes on the floor direct the robots to the proper shelves where the items they are commanded to look for are stacked. And, since they can travel under the shelves, the shelves can be stacked closer together, which means that the 1.2 million square foot warehouse can hold more of them and, therefore, more goods.
The system allows the warehouse to accommodate 20 million items or about 3.5 million different products. More than 700,000 items are shipped from there each day.
The robots are manufactured by Kiva Systems in North Reading, Massachusetts, which Amazon acquired specifically for this purpose. A warehouse using this system can save 20 percent in operating costs. It is not designed to take jobs away from people, but rather to work with the human staff and makes the job for human’s more tolerable. Humans are used to do the more sophisticated tasks including shelving, packing and monitoring for damaged goods.
Amazon claims that it hasn’t eliminated jobs as it continues to introduce the Kiva robot system. Matter of fact, it claims that it has added jobs, but did not say how many.
The human employees seem to be fine with it. A feeling of fraternity with the robots is encouraged and as many as 87 robots have been named after many of the human workers –- the names written to the outer shell of the gizmos.
The humans and robots cooperate during a normal day. Human laborers unload boxes from trucks, put them on to a conveyor belt, unpack the boxes and place the goods in carts that go to other workers who sort the items onto shelves.
One might think that since there are 3,000 robots scurrying along the floor they are always bumping into one another. That’s not the case because each machine includes sensors that allow them to talk to one another.
The robots have been known to break down. However, the warehouse staff includes engineers who fix them within two or so hours.
The bottom line is that previous to the system, it took hours for Amazon warehouse employees to walk and pick products from rows and rows of shelves. Thanks to the robots the routine takes just a few minutes.