Amazon Calls In Robot Helpers To Deal With Christmas Rush

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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Amazon has deployed 15,000 robots at its US warehouses to boost capacity and reduce shipping times

Amazon has disclosed it is using 15,000 robots made by Kiva, a start-up acquired for $775 million (£495m) in May 2012, across 10 of its 50 US warehouses to help with the Christmas shopping rush.

The company has remained quiet until now about how it is using the robots, but over the weekend it demonstrated the machines to the press, saying that they can cut order fulfilment time from an hour and a half to about 15 minutes.

Amazon packagesStowing and picking

When merchandise arrives in Amazon’s latest-generation warehouse, humans first place it on shelving units, where it is arranged according to an algorithm. When an order comes in, one of the Kiva robots goes to fetch the item, sliding under the shelving unit and lifting the entire shelf, which can weigh up to 750 pounds.

The shelf is then brought before a human picker, who sends it along to be packaged and shipped, while the shelf is returned to its place. The robots use sensors to communicate with one another and avoid collisions.

The system means human pickers no longer need to walk to the shelf themselves, saving time and also meaning that shelving units can be packed more closely together, so that more merchandise can be stored in each warehouse.

At a warehouse in Tracy, California, not far from San Francisco, Amazon said it has 3,000 Kiva robots in use, in a four-floor facility currently holding 21 million items. Once the facility is fully operational, it will hold 26 million items, representing 5 million products, and shipping 1.5 million items per day, up from about 700,000 currently, Amazon said.

Speed improvement

While the system is more expensive than static shelving units, it results in faster delivery times, according tot he company. Amazon said that ultimately this could push back the cut-off time for next-day delivery from noon to later in the day.

Amazon said it is working on a next-generation robot that will be able to grasp items, bringing the warehouse a step closer to full automation.

Amazon said the robots have not replaced any human jobs so far, since the company’s growth has meant it has continued to hire workers, adding 61,110 employees since 2011. Some 4,000 workers are employed at the Tracy facility, 2,500 having been hired to deal with Christmas shopping demand.

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