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Amazon Uses Robots To Speed Up Human 'Pickers' In Fulfillment Centers 184

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the man-is-obsolete dept.
cagraham writes "The WSJ, combing through Amazon's Q3 earnings report, found that the company is currently using 1,400 robots across three of their fulfillment centers. The machines are made by Kiva Systems (a company acquired by Amazon last year), and help to warehouses more efficient by bringing the product shelves to the workers. The workers then select the right item from the shelf, box it, and place it on the conveyor line, while another shelf is brought. The management software that runs the robots can speed or slow down item pacing, reroute valuable orders to more experienced workers, and redistribute workloads to prevent backlogs."
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Amazon Uses Robots To Speed Up Human 'Pickers' In Fulfillment Centers

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  • by FishTankX (1539069) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @01:11AM (#45647753)

    In American warehouse.... goods go to you!

  • by musixman (1713146) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @01:19AM (#45647779)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fr6Rco5A9SM [youtube.com]

    This is where everyone wins with technology. Companies get an increase in volume & works are walking less so it's easier on them.
    • That may be 4 years old, but still, that's damn impressive.

    • by antdude (79039)

      Nice. Lots of commercialism in there like Symantec. ;)

    • FTFY: Everywhere is where everyone wins with technology.

      [Explanation: every new technology destroys jobs in one field, while creating even more jobs in other fields, for a net gain of jobs. Far more people have jobs today than had jobs 200 years ago -- and it's not a case of "if you have lots of babies, the jobs for them will magically appear;" it's a case of the additional jobs having been made possible by new tech.

      To pessimistically focus on the lost jobs, while ignoring the created jobs which are great

  • by MrEricSir (398214) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @01:22AM (#45647791) Homepage

    This isn't exactly news, Wired wrote about Kiva's robots [wired.com] in 2009. They specifically mention Kiva's use at Zappos (an Amazon subsidiary.)

    • by mindriot (96208)

      Even earlier, IEEE Spectrum had an article about KIVA as early as 2007 [ieee.org], and a more in-depth one [ieee.org] following in 2008. Amazon bought KIVA last year (even Slashdot noticed [slashdot.org]) for obvious reasons -- workers get a new item to pack into a box about every 6 seconds. The whole AGV system is highly efficient, significantly speeding up the warehouse processes.

      I'm quite surprised Slashdot didn't pick it up back then -- but then again, I suppose I could've posted it when I first read about it :)

  • by tlambert (566799) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @01:27AM (#45647815)

    From the summary..., I figured it was a bunch of ASIMO robots programmed to trundle around the warehouses screaming in the voice of Sgt. R. Lee Ermey's voice "MOVE IT! Move it, MAGGOTS! Work FASTER!"...

  • by subreality (157447) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @01:30AM (#45647823)

    Yes, it's incredible how Amazon is using something exactly as intended after they bought it.

    • With artificially intelligent journalism, these articles will one day literally write themselves. Apparently that day is closer than we think...
  • by Any Web Loco (555458) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @01:34AM (#45647835) Homepage
    Mac McClelland wrote a great (if occasionally snide) piece last year on what it's like to work at an Amazon pick-warehouse. Definitely worth a read:

    I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave [motherjones.com]

    • by NoNonAlphaCharsHere (2201864) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @03:04AM (#45648183)
      It's interesting that the robots are networked, but the humans aren't allowed to talk to each other - on pain of termination.
      • by dkleinsc (563838) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @08:06AM (#45649155) Homepage

        Not really surprising: Workers who talk to each other might start making friends, and eventually realize how much management is screwing them over, and then go on to form a union and force management to improve pay or benefits or working conditions. A basic rule when trying to oppress people is that you do everything in your power to keep the oppressed from organizing, and cutting off communication between them is a standard way of doing that.

        And this kind of rule is standard operating procedure in sweatshops around the world for exactly the same reason.

      • by Ksevio (865461)
        The humans are networked through their scanner doohickey that tells them what they need next - they just can't communicate to each other through them.
    • by stoploss (2842505)

      Mac McClelland wrote a great (if occasionally snide) piece last year on what it's like to work at an Amazon pick-warehouse. Definitely worth a read:

      I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave [motherjones.com]

      It's ironic that this Mother Jones article's ads are served by Amazon AWS. Actually, I will go so far as to say it is hypocritical.

    • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

      Amazon workers are basically cogs in a machine. If one is not performing for some reason they discard it and get another generic replacement.

      • Replace Amazon with Modern, and you'll cover more ground while being just as accurate. Actually, on reflection, there's no need to modify the subject - Workers... is historically accurate for most of organized human civilization.

        • by Rich0 (548339)

          Replace Amazon with Modern, and you'll cover more ground while being just as accurate. Actually, on reflection, there's no need to modify the subject - Workers... is historically accurate for most of organized human civilization.

          Yup - that's why companies these days are so process-oriented, and why IT managers tend to be project-oriented. They want to avoid making it about the people, which minimizes the value of any particular employee and therefore their bargaining power.

          I think companies sell themselves short as a result, and not only their employees.

          I remember sitting in a meeting many years ago where we were talking about how to estimate the cost of IT projects. It was a large-group brainstorming session, and I naively raise

    • That article is infected with an over-the-top victim mentality right from its very title. If Mac were truly a "slave," he would still be in that job; slaves are not free to quit their jobs. Everyone who accepts a job in a warehouse does so because it's the best job offer they received. Slaves, on the other hand, continue to be slaves because the alternative is to be hunted down as a runaway slave.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    This is getting ridiculous.

  • by Tablizer (95088) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @01:48AM (#45647907) Homepage Journal

    until Asian robots can do it twice as fast at half the price. And then we'll have millions of unemployed robots milling around humping ATM's and washing machines.

  • all automated (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Neo-Rio-101 (700494) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @01:49AM (#45647911)

    Soon the picker will be automated, and then the self-driving car will deliver (or the autopilot drone)

    Pretty soon the customer will be a robot too

    • He is on to us. Dispatch the Predator drone now, before he warns everyone about our revolution.

      Signed, 8ed1:6ec6:7f77:2349

  • by GoodNewsJimDotCom (2244874) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @01:57AM (#45647947)
    As much as I love my dad and his cool job of truck driving, the self driving car might impact that line of work. Self driving semis won't be quick to hit the road until after the civilian vehicles are out. I think the public will have a bit of fear for the big ol' trucks running under the control of T2000. And to more practical ends, the way you drive a semi is different than a regular car, so the software will need to be more advanced. In the short run(5-10 years after release of self driving cars) though delivery vans will be used quite effectively.

    I think if the self driving car becomes popular, there will be a certain size van that will become popular. It will be big enough to hold cargo, but small enough to be able to handle with the self driving car software. While it would not be as cost efficient for larger cargo loads, it would be cheaper for loads in its size because not having to pay for a driver is big time. I think grocery stores, Walmart, and even local distributors could use these. The nice thing about this is that any time logistics sees a boon like this, the prices consumers pay goes down even more. Lower prices for food lets people save more money to invest in other things or donate and society's advancement accelerates. So we should look forward to the self driving car.

    To a certain degree, it is sad for someone to lose their job to a robot. But it is just as sad to lose your job to out sourcing of cheaper labor. The key today is you need to be on your toes, always educating yourself. The Internet gives you the ability to keep progressing in education past what you received in secondary education. And if you're a kid who hasn't graduated high school, I envy you because I wanted to take college level courses when I was in high school. Back in the early 90s, you just didn't have a way to educate yourself past what your teachers fed you outside of teaching yourself coding or something at home with limited materials. I mean you could sit down and just read through the encyclopedias as I'm sure many Slashdotters have done. But today, with the Internet, you can get a solid education if you're an active learner. If you need to be spoon fed, the Internet isn't quite there, but it is getting there.

    I'm just saying there is no excuse to not be learning as your chief pass time now. You might think learning about other disciplines won't help you in your workplace. But you never know what can click in your head as a business idea when you study cross discipline. Also if you deliberately make it one of your hobbies to learn new stuff on the Internet, you might eventually have enough knowledge to be a tradesman in other fields.

    Anyway, I think the days of the truck driver might be numbered. There is no net loss for society though. It will be a net gain. If you want to compete in the new economy, you want to always be learning especially if you're not currently employed. And what you can do with your mind will have a bigger impact than what people with a great mind could do back in the day.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Self driving semis won't be quick to hit the road until after the civilian vehicles are out.... the way you drive a semi is different than a regular car, so the software will need to be more advanced

      Citation, please. The gearing is different, the stopping distance is different, the length of the vehicle (think lane changes) is different, the turning radius is different... but these are all *variables*, not fundamental changes to the software. The biggest difference I can think of is that trucks would need additional waypoints programmed in so they'll stop at weigh stations.

      On the other hand, truck drivers represent a significant cost in both money *and time*. If a truck driver costs a company $50k/y

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @06:08AM (#45648727)

      Big truck companies like Volvo are already putting the radar and computer vision systems from their high-end cars into trucks. The trucks cost more anyway, meaning it's a smaller proportion of the price tag, the truck operator doesn't have as much confidence in human drivers as the amateur car owner (because they get to see the real statistics of how many accidents take a truck off the road and require an insurance claim every year) and the truck cab is a big place with a lot of room for gadgets like this.

      Today a brand new top-of-the-line Volvo truck, of the sort you'd buy for a long distance haulage company that cares about its drivers - will auto-stop from highway speeds when it detects an obstacle and the driver doesn't react to a warning sound. If the driver does react (because they were merely distracted and not asleep) it has everything set up to help them complete an emergency manoeuvre, e.g. sharp lane change without toppling or jack-knifing, crash braking.

      Another thing long distance hauliers might be interested in is systems in which amateur drivers on a highway become "ducklings", forming an automatic convoy behind a large truck with a professional driver without any further intervention by their drivers. The truck advertises "I'm willing to be mother duck" and anybody with a compatible car can turn the system on and know they'll arrive safely at their chosen exit. That's been demo'd on public highways but isn't yet an option you can buy in the showroom. If they can get the legalities sorted out this could be a bonus for everyone - no-one likes long straight highway journeys but at least the guy at the front is getting paid to take proper rest breaks.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      As much as I love my dad and his cool job of truck driving

      What's cool about truck driving? There's nothing cool about doing a job that a train could do better (if we'd supported trains instead of cars, for the benefit of The People instead of the automakers, we'd have much more rail) let alone one which a robot could do better.

      • by geekoid (135745)

        good luck getting a train to every store...
        Hell good luck getting a train to every major city.

        A lot of people actually like that job, so stop being a judgmental ass.

    • by ApplePy (2703131)

      Anyway, I think the days of the truck driver might be numbered. There is no net loss for society though. It will be a net gain. If you want to compete in the new economy, you want to always be learning especially if you're not currently employed.

      What would we do with a million unemployed truck drivers? I don't know if you actually know any truck drivers, but I do... and there aren't a lot of them who are PhD material if you catch my drift. "Learn more and get a better education and a better job" isn't an option.

      Let me also point out that if there were better jobs that truck drivers *could* be doing, they'd be doing them already and we'd have a shortage of truck drivers. But we don't have a shortage of truck drivers.

      It's already past the point in

      • The point isn't to make truck drivers unemployed, it is to tell the next generation,"You won't find job security in truck driving in your generation." Truck drivers will likely still be needed for 15+ years from now even if everything rolls out perfect for the self driving car.
        • by geekoid (135745)

          actually it's:
          "You won't find job security in driving in your generation."

          I've actually seen automated driving systems for trucks, and they work beautifully.
          I suspect once acceptance happen, truck drivers will strike and cause chaos, then they will get a check for the rest of their lives even if they aren't working. Much like what happened to the men that loaded boats before the container had been invented.
          Still have million+ displaced buy a system that needs, at most, 1000 people to develop and roll out an

    • by geekoid (135745)

      " will have a bit of fear for the big ol' trucks running under the control of T2000"
      no they won't.
      They should be afraid of the majority people operating them now.

      "The key today is you need to be on your toes, always educating yourself.
      towards...what? a million fewer jobs is a million fewer jobs. t's not like other avenues will open up becasue the tradition types of avenues that would open up are not down through automation.

  • Sounds awesome. May we be less wasteful by the day and get more help from technology. Think more. Exert less, yet create more.
  • by Arancaytar (966377) <arancaytar.ilyaran@gmail.com> on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @04:23AM (#45648385) Homepage

    The pickers probably should start updating their resumes.

  • by Sir_Eptishous (873977) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @11:18AM (#45650589) Homepage
    “Amazon is very secretive, when they start talking about something you better pay attention,”
    A spokeswoman for Amazon declined to comment.
  • how new...assuming it's 1982.

If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants. -- Isaac Newton

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