15,000 Amazon robots help send gifts on their way
In its constant effort to refine its distribution operation, Amazon is deploying thousands of robots to help warehouse workers prepare products for shipping. But these robots look less like R2D2 and more like orange coffee tables on wheels.
Seattle Times business reporter
Where the robots are
Amazon has rolled out 15,000 Kiva robots in 10 warehouses in these U.S. cities:
• DuPont and Sumner, Wash.
• Tracy and Patterson, Calif.
• Haslet, Coppell and Schertz, Texas
• Robbinsville, N.J.
• Ruskin and Lakeland, Fla.
TRACY, Calif. — Amazon.com has rolled out 15,000 robots at 10 warehouses across the United States, a move it says will speed shipping times and boost selection, all while cutting operating costs 20 percent.
In a bid to gain attention ahead of Cyber Monday, the biggest online shopping day of the year, Amazon invited journalists to its warehouse here, about 60 miles east of San Francisco, to show off its robot uprising.
The robots, made by Kiva Systems, which Seattle-based Amazon acquired in 2012 for $775 million, look less like R2D2 than orange coffee tables with wheels. The 320-pound robots patrol warehouse floors, guided by computer-coded stickers on the ground and software baked into their hard drives.
As they spin around warehouses, the robots lift and move shelves of products, delivering them to workers who pluck items to be shipped off to customers.
In Amazon’s older warehouses, employees walk up and down aisles upon aisles of products, picking items and placing them in carts they then wheel to stations where other workers sort them.
Not only do the robots eliminate the need for so-called pickers to walk many miles a day, the devices also reduce the need for the aisles themselves.
The shelves that hold the products can be stacked tightly next to one another, giving Amazon 50 percent more space to store inventory.
“The majority of the aisles disappear,” said Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations and customer service.
That, in turn, gives Amazon the ability to offer more products at each warehouse, decreasing the time it takes to get goods from warehouse shelves to customer doorsteps.
Amazon plans to store 26 million to 27 million items at this 1.2 million-square-foot facility in California. On a peak day, it will be able to ship 1.1 million to 1.5 million products from there.
That should help reduce one of the biggest advantages brick-and-mortar stores hold over Amazon: the instant gratification of taking possession of a product once it has been purchased.
“It’s always faster to have inventory in one place,” Clark said.
Even with Kiva, Amazon has more than doubled its head count since the acquisition, with nearly 150,000 employees as of September. Clark insists that robots won’t displace workers. Instead, he said, it will make them more efficient.
Rather than walking the warehouse floors, workers can now spend time sorting, boxing and shipping orders. With the new system, Amazon can get an order from the shelves, into a box and onto a truck in as fast as 13 minutes, compared with more than an hour without robots, Clark said.
“We’re dramatically more efficient than we were,” Clark said.
Amazon had said little about Kiva since the acquisition. One of the few times it mentioned Kiva was at the company’s annual shareholders meeting in May. There, Chief Executive Jeff Bezos hinted at a broad rollout, saying the company planned to have 10,000 robots operating in its warehouses by the end of the year.
The company has been working quietly for more than two years at Kiva’s North Reading, Mass., offices, as well as at its Sumner warehouse, to design the system it’s now rolling out.
Clark declined to disclose the cost of developing the robotic systems used in the 10 warehouses. But he said Amazon has built 12,000 robots this year, more than Kiva produced as an independent company.
In July, it brought the robots to the Tracy warehouse, which opened in 2013. But Amazon, which has 109 warehouses worldwide, has no plans to retrofit older facilities with the Kiva systems.
“The overall number [of warehouse growth] is likely to slow, but the overall size [of products stored in each warehouse] will grow,” Clark said.
The Kiva systems are running only at U.S. warehouses. The company expects to introduce the robots to a few international sites next year, and more widely in 2016.
Amazon has also added other types of warehouses as it pushes to speed delivery. Last summer, the company launched a new style of warehouse, called a sortation center, which lets Amazon control packages longer and deliver them directly to neighborhood post offices.
Clark said the company now has 19 of those facilities, including one in Kent.
Amazon is taking the wraps off the Kiva robots in large part to put a spotlight on the company as consumers ramp up their holiday spending.
It’s the same reason the company disclosed last year it was developing drones that could one day deliver packages without having to go through traditional shipping companies.
The concept generated significant skepticism. But it also got people talking about Amazon just as the holiday shopping season began.