One of the biggest concerns around artificial intelligence [AI] is its use in robotic systems that will replace jobs, en mass.
Whilst there has been a lot of press about Amazon’s bid to deliver its goods via drones, not so much is publicised about the sorting [fulfilment] end of the logistics chain. In fact, Amazon now has 45,000 robots across its 20 fulfilment centres [as of Jan 2017].
Amazon’s capability was sourced through acquisition of robotics company – Kiva Systems – in 2012. Amazon’s robots are around — 40.6cm high, weigh in at nearly 145kg , and can haul packages up to 317kg at a top speed of 8km per hour.
Amazon robots operate over four floors to effectively provide dynamic shelving – meaning that rather than human workforce being required to walk the massive warehouse to fulfil an order, they simply stand in one place and the robots collect the items and deliver them to the humans. A typical order now only uses about a minute in human time to remove the order off the ported shelf, box it and ship it. The rest of the work is performed by robots and automated systems.
One interesting outcomes of using robots in this way is that upon delivery of goods to the warehouse, they are not required to be placed into single SKU bins as in traditional warehouses. The robots can them simply gain access to information on the ‘nearest’ location of a single good in any order and move to collect it. Compiling multiple goods into a single bin enables them to deliver a complete order to humans for packing and dispatch.
Amazon also uses large robotic arms to move large pallets around the warehouse. It assesses each centre for robotic enhancement on a case by case basis, admitting that in some centres, full robotic enhancement isn’t economic sense.
In spite of its heavy investment in logistical robots, Amazon maintains a healthy workforce. For example, in a single Amazon fulfilment centre, there are still 4,000 people working alongside 30,000 robots.
Similarly, Chinese company Shentong, also uses robots as part of delivery logistics.
Shentong’s logistics system sorts 200,000 packages a day
The orange robots scan the bar-code on packages at sorting stations to identify the destination of the package. This virtually eliminates sorting mistakes.
The robots are self-charging; making them operational 24/7.
According to company estimates, the robotic sorting system operates at a savings of ~ 70 percent of the costs a human-based sorting line.