Amazon rolls out robotics at DuPont warehouse
The online-retail giant offers another glimpse into its robotics strategy, showcasing a six-ton robotic arm used to move larger items around one of its newest warehouses.
Seattle Times business reporter
DUPONT, Pierce County — Amazon said as little as it could about its plans for Kiva Systems, when it bought robot maker in 2012 for $775 million.
These days, Amazon can’t talk enough about the way those robots automate its warehouses.
The retail giant invited the press and local dignitaries Friday to one of its newest warehouses, a 1 million square foot facility in DuPont. The company, which said it would spend $100 million on the warehouse when it announced plans to build it in 2012, stocks large items there, including strollers, vacuum cleaners and boxes with 48 rolls of toilet paper.
Amazon.com, which has 109 warehouses worldwide, ships smaller items, such as books, DVDs and toys, from other warehouses, including the one it has in Sumner.
The DuPont warehouse, which opened last June, is teeming with hundreds of Kiva robots. Those are the squat, coffee table-sized gadgets that buzz around, lifting and moving shelves of products, delivering them to workers who pluck items to be shipped off to customers.
The warehouse also uses a six-ton robotic arm, one of seven Amazon owns, that can lift pallets of products weighing as much as 3,000 pounds. It’s a key piece to a massively automated system that stows, picks and ships the larger products stocked at the DuPont facility.
Last November, Amazon unveiled the Kiva robots at its Tracy, Calif., warehouse, highlighting its innovation while trying to generate buzz before the Cyber Monday shopping spree. Then, as now, the company said that the robots won’t replace employees; the devices will make work easier for the workers.
“They do the repetitive, tedious jobs that humans don’t want to do,” said Mike Roth, Amazon’s vice president of North American operations.
What’s more, the robots allow Amazon to pack more products into the warehouses because workers no longer need to race through the aisles of shelves, picking products. Instead, robots move the massive shelving to pick the precise products customers want. That means shelves can be stacked tightly next to one another, giving Amazon 50 percent more space to store inventory.
Amazon employs 500 full-time workers in DuPont, including 60 military veterans, many of whom were stationed at the nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord. It added 400 workers temporarily during the busy holiday-shopping season.
The warehouse is Amazon’s third in the state, including the Sumner facility and a smaller operations in Bellevue, home to its local AmazonFresh grocery-delivery service.
The company plans to open another warehouse in Kent within 12 months.
“We’re going to see even more use of robotics,” Roth said. That warehouse will be adjacent to a so-called “sortation” center the company opened last year. It’s one of more than a dozen such facilities where Amazon sorts packages by ZIP codes and delivers them directly to local post offices in order to speed delivery.
Amazon has doubled up the number of warehouses it operates in the past four years, working to cut into the key advantage brick-and-mortar stores hold: instant gratification customers get when they take possession of a product the second it’s been purchased.
And while some investors fret over how Amazon’s continued spending eats into its margins, Roth said the company will continue to open warehouses as demand merits.