For decades, one of the most difficult problems for robot developers to solve was the seemingly mundane one.
com comes significantly closer to achieving this elusive goal with a vast workforce and leaps in automation capabilities that promise far-reaching effects on future growth ambitions.
The tech giant unveiled a new collection of robots last month. One of them is good at replacing humans in picking up items and putting them elsewhere, which is the most common job on Amazon. The cornerstone of this new kind of automation is a robotic arm that combines advanced artificial intelligence, a variety of grippers, and off-the-shelf industrial standards of speed and accuracy. robot arm.
The announcement was easy to miss as it came amidst a series of news that showed some of the challenges Amazon hopes to tackle with its automation efforts. began furloughing company employees in mid-November as part of a drastic cost-cutting effort.
The company’s workforce has more than doubled over the period, surpassing 1.6 million earlier this year. Most of these employees have been added to Amazon’s sprawling logistics operations that deliver packages to e-commerce customers. Amazon has struggled to manage the size and morale of its employee group, with some employees becoming restless with highly repetitive work demands. The company in October fought off an attempt to unionize a New York facility by early labor groups who vowed to continue the campaign.
One of Amazon’s long-term solutions to these problems is robots that make the roles many of these workers currently play obsolete. Instead, Amazon promotes automation in terms of employee benefits.
Amazon’s recently announced robots could help the company lower both its warehouse injury and turnover rates, said Tye Brady, chief technologist at Amazon Global Robotics. “Robots are good at repetitive tasks and heavy lifting. I want to automate mundane and repetitive tasks,” he says.
Sparrow is unique in its capabilities and the scale of Amazon’s ambitions for it. At first glance, the robot has the potential to one day save Amazon billions in wages and benefits. Or, as Amazon leaders often say, the company can continue to grow despite recent labor issues. “Our goal is to give employees the tools they need to do their jobs more efficiently and safely,” says Brady. “Collaborative robotics is the key to increased productivity and I believe it can also improve the employee experience,” he adds.
Amazon, along with a cluster of other robotics companies developing similar machines, has developed what experts in the field call the “Holy Grail” of robotics: as dexterous and agile as human arms and hands. , seeking adaptable machines.
Such robots may one day be able to handle the thousands, and in the case of Amazon, millions, of different goods that are transported in a typical e-commerce fulfillment warehouse.
Amazon’s robotic arm is still in the experimental stage. Even Amazon’s robotics division hasn’t escaped widespread cost reductions, so the company needs to prove its worth if it’s to continue its efforts. A company spokesperson told the Journal that Amazon would lay off his 2% of employees in the division.
Sparrow’s first task is part of an experimental automated goods handling system the company announced in June. Typically, in Amazon’s warehouses, robotic “drive units” carry tall soft-sided shelves to humans. These bins are then taken on conveyors to different locations in the warehouse for packing and shipping.
In Amazon’s new system, instead of storing items on shelves, they are stored in plastic boxes above drive units. The bins are ergonomically positioned and automatically placed in front of the human eye, reducing the burden of retrieving items from them, a company spokesperson said.
Sparrow is an attempt to one day replace the human picker at this stage of work. What’s ergonomic for today’s human warehouse workers, no coincidence, is also suitable for future robotic arms like the Sparrow.
Other robots recently announced by Amazon include Robin and Cardinal, both of which sort packages. In June, Amazon announced Proteus, the company’s first fully autonomous goods-moving robot. Proteus can move through crowded areas while lifting and moving heavy carts weighing up to 800 pounds.
Currently, Sparrow can only process about 65% of the items in regular Amazon warehouses. These items range from hardcover books to liquid bottles to T-shirts in plastic bags. Ultimately, once Sparrow is good enough to do this work, the goal is to replace the pickers with humans, says Brady.
Other companies are developing similar robots, but they are intended to have a narrower range of products than the Sparrow robot. These include Ambi Robotics, which provides parcel handling robots to the US Postal Service, and RightHand Robotics. The company’s robotic arms, capable of pulling thousands of different types of items out of bins, are used in Paltac’s warehouses.,
Japan’s largest wholesaler of consumer goods.
One of the things that’s helping the adoption of these robotic picking systems is the rapidly dropping cost of technology that automatically stores bins full of goods and delivers the right ones to the robots, he said. said Yaro Tenzer, CEO of RightHand Robotics. “Sometimes we joke: ‘God bless all the companies that can deliver loads to our robots.'”
Companies offering these robotic storage systems include Attabotics, AutoStore, Alert Innovation, and Dematic.
That said, Amazon wants larger and more complex operations.
“What we’re doing is unlike anything done in human history, the scale we’re working on,” Brady said.
New kinds of automation can also help companies with business goals beyond headcount reduction. For example, Amazon has long relied on certain types of automation in its warehouses, but since 2012, it has continued to employ more warehouse workers, surpassing 1 million since 2012. Much more important is getting items to consumers faster while keeping costs low.
In the future, workers will move away from roles such as picking and into other roles that help the company better serve its customers, Brady said. He added that he doesn’t know exactly what those roles will be.
History has a lesson for those looking to use automation to improve productivity. So many people today have jobs that didn’t exist when America was founded, when more than two-thirds of his Americans were farmers. (The current figure is he’s under 2%.) So a world full of powerful, dexterous, tireless, artificially intelligent robotic arms where all the workers displaced by them are still working at Amazon. It’s not clear if that means
In the short term, Amazon’s claims that automation can do more with existing workforces (such as enabling faster deliveries) may prove true. Going forward, it’s not at all clear whether even Amazon’s most ambitious goals will require all the people the company currently employs. In fact, given the dozens of companies offering robots like the one Amazon is building, and the efficiencies Amazon’s competitors can achieve with those robots, Amazon’s automation could reduce its reliance on humans. Otherwise, it can pose a long-term threat. – Viability of the company’s retail operations.
From that perspective, robotics innovation at Amazon seems like a matter of survival for the company. And its continued investment in technology suggests its leaders know it.
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