House of Smarts

In a traditional Amazon warehouse, a worker might walk between seven and fifteen miles per shift. Inside Amazon’s logistics center in Winsen, near Hamburg, the company uses mobile robots that bring an entire shelf of goods to the employee, saving time, costs, and space.

Shielded by a huge black grid, massive bright yellow robot shelves pass each other on straight tracks and then turn around with a twist and precise accuracy, just like dancing. They then line up in small groups, wait to get filled, only to drive back into the corridors, moving away from the swarm. A few hundred of them are in use here, at the Amazon logistics center in Winsen/Luhe near Hamburg: A hub of 64,000 square meters, operated by the online retailer since the end of 2017.

The robots, or “Automated Guided Vehicles”, are as unspectacular as their name: Machines on wheels, 16 inches tall, that resemble oversized vacuum cleaners, they slot underneath the tall upright shelves and carry their loads – up to 340 kilos – in a geometric choreography. As of today, Amazon employs more than half a million people around the world, not counting subcontractors and seasonal workers, while 100,000 robots are on duty inside its warehouses worldwide.

Queuing like kids at an ice cream shop

On the other side of the grid, a group of workers – the “stowers” – fill the yellow shelves with products. Like a row of children at an ice cream shop, the robots queue up to take the shelves and transport them to the human “pickers” who, following the instructions on the computer screen, remove objects from the shelves and place them in plastic containers. These then disappear on conveyor belts for “packers” who pack the products in the carton intended for the client.
A traditional warehouse employee typically spends most of his or her time walking around the warehouse to gather all of the items for an order. “Transport robots reduce the processing time for orders. The higher parallel processing speeds up the processes. Nowadays, it sometimes only takes minutes, where before, hours were necessary,” the company says. Robotics also enables better use to be made of storage space, allowing more products to be stored. The greater density of shelf space means more stock under one roof, which in turn provides better choices for customers.

Efficiency gains based on organized confusion

An organic shelving system without permanent areas or sections

One benefit is made possible by the company’s inventory management system, based on a so-called “random storage philosophy”. “The product is separated from the customer order,” explains Norbert Brandau, Amazon’s site manager in Winsen. “As we have the articles distributed randomly and according to the broadest possible mathematical distribution in the pods, the system can process summarized customer orders in the shortest possible time,” Brandau continues, adding that the inventory at warehouses with robots is stored using the same strategy as in Amazon’s non-robotized warehouses.

At Amazon’s automated warehouses, the workers scan the item, place it on one of the shelves, and then scan the shelf so the computer knows where the item is located. Chaotic or random storage is a bit like organized confusion, but order is brought to the chaos by the unique barcode associated with each product that enters the warehouse. “It’s an organic shelving system without permanent areas or sections; the product’s characteristics and attributes are irrelevant,” says Brandau, “leading to efficiency gains of 30 to 50% in picking, for example.”

The robots do not build themselves. Humans design them, humans build them, humans deploy them, humans support them.

Tye Brady, Chief Technologist at Amazon Robotics

A “marching army of ants”, constantly changing its goals

For Tye Brady, Chief Technologist at Amazon Robotics, these efficiency gains are made possible by a “marching army of ants that can constantly change its goals based on the situation at hand,” as he explained to the US network PBS in May 2018. Brady calls the place where the robots are built the “nursery”. “They’ll be built, they’ll take their first breath of air, they’ll do their own diagnostics. Once they’re ready, they’ll line up for robot graduation, and then they will swing their tassels to the appropriate side, drive themselves right onto a pallet, and go directly to a fulfillment center.”
The more robots Amazon adds to its fulfillment centers, the more jobs are created, Brady continues. “The robots do not build themselves. Humans design them, humans build them, humans deploy them, humans support them. And then humans, most importantly, interact with the robots.” The company claims that humans still provide irreplaceable skills in their fulfillment centers, including dexterity, adaptiveness, and common sense.

A reasonable interaction between man and robot

“A plant like ours has a permanent workforce of 1,600 employees, and we hire additional staff for certain peaks,” says Norbert Brandau. If Amazon covered the Christmas season with robots alone, it would be impossible to use the machines in a meaningful way from Q1 to Q3 of the following year. “There is always a reasonable interaction between man and robot,” the site manager concludes.