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Businesses

Armies of Helper Robots Keep Amazon's Warehouses Running Smoothly 110

jones_supa writes Amazon is continuing to maintain its vision of an automatic warehouse. Since acquiring robot-maker Kiva, a Massachusetts company, for $775 million in cash in 2012, the e-commerce retailer has been increasingly implementing automation at its gargantuan fulfillment centers. This holiday season, Amazon's little helper is an orange, 320-pound robot. The 15,000 robots are part of the company's high-tech effort to serve customers faster. By lifting shelves of Amazon products off the ground and speedily delivering them to employee stations, the robots dramatically reduce the manual labor to locate and carry items. The Kiva robots, which resemble overgrown Roombas, are capable of lifting as much as 750 pounds and glide across Amazon's warehouse floors by following rows of sensors. Because Kiva-equipped facilities eliminate the need for wide aisles for humans to walk down, eighth-generation centers can also hold 50% more inventory than older warehouses. As Amazon is doing well, the company says that increase of automation hasn't yet led to staff reduction.
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Armies of Helper Robots Keep Amazon's Warehouses Running Smoothly

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  • by turkeydance ( 1266624 ) on Monday December 01, 2014 @09:52AM (#48496667)
    as Amazon grows, no need for more.
    • That's not entirely true. They've been hiring developers pretty consistently.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      It's a lose-lose situation for Amazon. If they were expanding warehouse staff, you'd be screaming because the work is cruel and unusual punishment. Now they're not, and you're screaming because they're not creating more jobs. Amazon can't win - and this is by design.
    • Well, you can not force a company to hire more people, nor blame it for optimizing their warehouse. It they're really not firing people, that's a good thing. I guess their business is growing, too, so to compensate the reduction in manual labor.
      • by Shoten ( 260439 )

        Well, you can not force a company to hire more people, nor blame it for optimizing their warehouse. It they're really not firing people, that's a good thing. I guess their business is growing, too, so to compensate the reduction in manual labor.

        Well put. On the other side of it, I don't see how it should in any way be a surprise to anyone who knows Amazon at all (like their warehouse employees) that this kind of thing would be on its way. There is a certain reality to the fact that people must grow and evolve their skills to maintain their own employability no matter what their career path.

        A more cynical, if not entirely inaccurate, way to describe the other side of that equation is this. [despair.com]

    • by creimer ( 824291 )
      When Amazon stops growing, investors will demand profits and find none.
      • Amazon is a LONG WAYS AWAY from not growing.
        In addition, they will be back on profits in about 2 years or less. This investment is smart on their part. Damn Smart.
        • by creimer ( 824291 )
          Unless Wall Street decides otherwise. Amazon wouldn't be the first tech stock to collapse from a lack of profits.
  • Robot Video Overview (Score:5, Informative)

    by syserr0r ( 2763257 ) on Monday December 01, 2014 @09:57AM (#48496709)
    A 3:35 video on youtube of their general operation, for those interested https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]
    • Interesting but how do they stock the shelves?
      • The shelves are stocked the same way they are picked, by having the robot travel to a station where a human places the items on the shelves. One way to organize the warehouse would be to put the replenishment/put away stations near the incoming goods (e.g. receiving area) with the picking stations on the opposite side. not sure if this is how Amazon is configured or not.
    • by antdude ( 79039 )

      Is there an updated video of Amazon's bots? ;)

  • I could've sworn I've seen videos of big warehouses that are mainly automated, with footage that looked pretty '80s at the latest. And looking around at what's been written about the topic, people as far back as the '70s were already writing algorithms [tandfonline.com] to optimize movement of the robots up and down the warehouse aisles. Maybe that was just in Japan?

    I don't think Amazon is really ahead of the curve here either way, just implementing what's pretty standard warehouse technology by now.

    • by sirwired ( 27582 ) on Monday December 01, 2014 @12:06PM (#48497911)

      Simple X-Y robots (that have been around for years) that pick regularly-shaped items off of shelves (usually decent-sized boxes) and drop them onto conveyors are pretty standard, and not that difficult. Picking up objects of an infinite variety of shapes and sizes, many of which are quite small, is something it's not possible for robots (at least not reasonably priced ones) to reliably do at this time.

      This system (which brings the shelves to the workers, as workers are MUCH better at plucking small, irregularly-shaped items out of boxes) has fascinating challenges all of it's own, mainly related to traffic control, safety, and where to put the shelves after you are done. (A fixed location is very inefficient, but neither do you want to stick the shelf in the first available space.)

      • by Trepidity ( 597 )

        Ah thanks, that makes sense. I guess the videos I've seen were probably of warehouses with at least semi-standardized items, e.g. distribution centers for one company's production.

      • This system (which brings the shelves to the workers, as workers are MUCH better at plucking small, irregularly-shaped items out of boxes) has fascinating challenges all of it's own, mainly related to traffic control, safety, and where to put the shelves after you are done. (A fixed location is very inefficient, but neither do you want to stick the shelf in the first available space.)

        The most space-efficient system I've ever seen was in a library and had shelves that moved sideways on rails. There were no

        • by Trepidity ( 597 )

          I've seen a version of that in a handyman shop also, allowed for compact storage of shelves and shelves of tools and parts. It's not good for throughput, though: since you can only have one aisle at a time "open", it's good for things like tools or library books where you have a large archive but only rarely retrieve any individual item. Not sure it'd work great for a delivery-staging warehouse.

          • It's not good for throughput, though: since you can only have one aisle at a time "open", it's good for things like tools or library books where you have a large archive but only rarely retrieve any individual item.

            But of course you can have any ratio of alleys to shelves. Just keep tabs on how many alleys you have at use at once on average and concentrate popular items on the same alleys. You can even put that "users who purchased this also often purchase these" database to use and group so an order can b

      • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

        This system (which brings the shelves to the workers, as workers are MUCH better at plucking small, irregularly-shaped items out of boxes) has fascinating challenges all of it's own, mainly related to traffic control, safety, and where to put the shelves after you are done. (A fixed location is very inefficient, but neither do you want to stick the shelf in the first available space.)

        The shelves are movable like you said. The position of the shelves within the warehouse can change depending on the hotness a

      • This system ([...]) has fascinating challenges all of it's own, mainly related to traffic control, safety, and where to put the shelves after you are done. (A fixed location is very inefficient, but neither do you want to stick the shelf in the first available space.)

        Without actually stopping to look up any details I'm going to say the following: It seems like the memory-management algorithms that operating systems use ought to at least shed some light on this problem. It seems like a lot of the same problems are present in both situations: you can move 'pages' of product into and out of the processing units (i.e., people in the factory, CPUs/cores in a computer), you want to keep frequently-used shelves/pages nearby (as opposed to out in the slower-than-cache RAM), e

  • The IBM 3850 mass storage system, announced in 1974, held up to 472G on strips of magnetic tape. The 3850 was a rectangular box large enough walk into, with the strips stored along its interior walls in a honeycomb arrangement of slots. A pair of robotic pickers took turns running along a set of rails where they would fetch a tape strip, carry it to a device that wrapped it around a drum for read/write access, and later return it to its slot. You could watch it operating through a window in the box (IBM lov

    • It is interesting so far as a job picking at an Amazon warehouse was pretty much the shittiest, most back-breaking (really, foot breaking from running on concrete floors all day with no rest), abusive job Americans still did. You only worked as a picker at Amazon if you had no other option and were on the verge of starvation. When those jobs are eliminated because of robots, those desperate enough to take a picker job will have no where else to go.

      I'm not at all suggesting that automation is bad. It's great

      • When those jobs are eliminated because of robots, those desperate enough to take a picker job will have no where else to go.

        Many will slide to a lower rung in the employment ladder. Some will ascend to the next rung up. For those jobs, wages will decrease.

        We are already seeing this with pseudo-jobs like Uber and taskrabbit.

        My mother has frequently said plumbers will always make a good living. When unskilled jobs disappear due to automation, many of those workers will be motivated to study a trade. T

      • I just wonder what people who were already in such dire straits as to put up with Amazon warehouse abuse are going to do instead.

        Well, traditionally a combination of desperate people and victim-blaming has led to unrest and eventually to a revolution. The possible responses to this are social security or a police state. The political situation in the US makes the former impossible, and all signs from the actions of intelligence agencies to the build-up of military gear for the police point to the country p

    • My point is that none of this is new. It is neither interesting nor innovative.

      That's pretty much the same statement as saying nothing interesting or innovative has happened in IT in the last 40 years. Just because someone did a crude version of something 40 years ago doesn't mean there has been no advancement or innovation in the mean time.

      • That's pretty much the same statement as saying nothing interesting or innovative has happened in IT in the last 40 years.

        Thanks for the clarification, that's exactly what I'm saying. Oh yes, there was nothing crude about the 3850.

    • The IBM 3850 mass storage system, announced in 1974, held up to 472G on strips of magnetic tape. The 3850 was a rectangular box large enough walk into, with the strips stored along its interior walls in a honeycomb arrangement of slots. A pair of robotic pickers took turns running along a set of rails where they would fetch a tape strip, carry it to a device that wrapped it around a drum for read/write access, and later return it to its slot. You could watch it operating through a window in the box (IBM loved to show off their stuff).

      My point is that none of this is new. It is neither interesting nor innovative.

      Yes, yes, and the fax machine is nothing but a waffle iron with a phone attached.

      All "things that move other things" are not equivalent. Kivas aren't restricted to running on rails. I suspect the IBM picker-bots weren't actively scanning their environment to avoid collisions, either, and so on.

      It is neither interesting

      Oh, isn't it? I thought it was. I guess I must be wrong about that.

    • My point is that none of this is new. It is neither interesting nor innovative.

      It's evolutionary, which is just as good as "new". Better even, it rides on proven, reliable technology. "New" is for the laboratory, where people are expected to die in an accident.

    • My point is that none of this is new. It is neither interesting nor innovative.

      Well, let's think about this:

      Because Kiva-equipped facilities eliminate the need for wide aisles for humans to walk down, eighth-generation centers can also hold 50% more inventory

      They're saying eighth generation.

      So, just maybe, they're not saying "ZOMG, we invented teh automation bitches" ... and what they're actually saying is "after several iterations, these have gotten better and more efficient".

      Since Amazon isn't saying what

    • A tape library arranged in a straight line with one or two picker robots does not, in any way, even resemble the issues involved with an army of independent transport robots picking things from an entire warehouse. Other than the word "robot", the two really don't have anything to do with each other.

      A tape library requires lighting speed, and a very high degree of precision. The issues with this system revolve around route planning, collision avoidance, queuing speed, and battery longevity.

      But while you a

  • Guys, I saw this on "60 minutes" over a year ago. Seriously. Seriously. Give up Slashdot and let someone who actually gives a fuck run it instead. Seriously. How much do you want to sell it for? I'm ready to change careers and I could run this site blindfolded better than you guys. Please. Sell. You don't know what you're doing and you're one step away from losing the entire audience.
    Please sell.

  • ppl like Bezo and Musk, rather than the trash like Welch and Whitman.
  • Running across concrete all day in minimally air conditioned buildings and under the uncaring eye of the computer clock for not much more than minimum wage. I read several exposee articles in the past few years about this. Unons and liberal governments were about to crack down on difficult considitons. And now they may not need to. Some things are better left to machines.
  • Usually doesn't, at first. It increases productivity by making it possible to use the current workers more efficiently. Slowly the unskilled workers who move boxes from point A to point B get replaced by slightly skilled workers who supervise the robots.

    Thank God we don't allow the underclass to buy firearms here in the USA, otherwise we'd have to worry about a revolution.

  • I'm sick of hearing about Amazon's "amazing" robots. The story is everywhere. I remember touring the IBM plant in Rochester, MN, back in 1989 (this is the place where the AS400s were built). There were robots everywhere throughout the factory running all over the place. Congratulations Amazon, welcome to 1989!

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