And you thought Santa needed helpers. A recent ArsTechnica article (Sprawling? Pssht–no one streamlines … like Amazon) I read indicated that Amazon’s 13 USA fulfillment centers deploy over 30,000 robots of one type or another.
A video on an 8th generation fulfillment center in another story (Amazon unveils its 8th Gen fulfillment center) is pretty amazing. There are these Kiva bots which pull up underneath a rack stand which is full of products, pushes up and then moves the whole stand to where a person is ready to pick out products for various orders. The products are put into a bin, the bins are shipped down a conveyer belt to some one who packs them into cardboard and sends them off on another conveyer belt for shipping.
Come on everybody, do the conga…
The Kiva robots looked like a conga line, going every which way with a rack of product shelves on top of them. The only other robots was a pallet handling robot in the video that lifted a pallet of packages up to a 2nd-3rd story floor for shipment.
All this has certainly come a long way since I was a manufacturing company shipping clerk. Where I worked there was a conveyer belt that delivered materials that had to be picked and placed into handmade cardboard boxes and then placed on pallets which were then moved by people driving electronic fork trucks to inventory or shipping docks. But we really only had to package one product at a time and the conveyer belts (or manufacturing line) would be reconfigured for every new product that needed to be shipped.
Fulfillment centers evolving
In the book The Everything Store, about the rise of Amazon, there was a description what must have been Gen 1 of their fulfillment centers. These centers contained old door panels on saw horses as tables, with shelves upon shelves, packed with books. People were running around, rummaging through the shelves to fulfill orders in their hands.
Somewhere in the middle of this evolution, Gen 4 perhaps, people were getting burded out. There was talk of people being so stressed out fulfilling orders at one center (Allentown, PA, see the Amazon Effect) that they were falling sick and that ambulances were stationed at the fulfillment center parking lots waiting for people to get sick–must have been Christmas rush.
The Gen 8 center in the video was nothing like this. If anything the people were relaxed and stayed at one place all the time, while the Kiva conga line fed them shelves of products to pick from. In the video I hardly saw any movement whatsoever other than Kiva robots and their rack loads, bins&packages on conveyer belts, or pallets of material being lifted/moved by a robot.
Fulfillment as an AWS service?
The ArsTechnica article talked more about how all AWS services are typically deployed and debugged for in house uses long before they get out to AWS customers at large. I don’t see Amazon offering fulfillment center logistics services yet but maybe I am missing something.
Then again, with Gen 9 fulfillment center, coming next year to Seattle, possibly they aren’t through tweaking it yet. No doubt a lot of AWS services are being burned to keep the fulfillment centers, literally “rolling” along.