While there is no shortage of stories about the future potential of Amazon’s drone delivery program, the real magic of the Internet of Things (IoT) is already happening at Amazon's vast fulfillment warehouses in the US. Thousands of robots in these locations gather merchandise for individual orders.
Joseph Durham, manager of research and advanced development at Amazon Robotics, talked about how the division got started during a presentation at the first annual IoT Solutions World Congress, held Sept. 16-18 in Barcelona. It all began with a small startup called Kiva Systems in North Reading, Mass., which was acquired by Amazon in 2012.
Kiva Systems had devised a system for office supplies retailer Staples that applied small robots — like the ones used to clean floors — to move racks of merchandise around the warehouse and help prepare online orders. Staples started with 60 robots in 2006 and grew to 500 the following year. The robots at Staples' facility have been running nonstop ever since.
The Amazon robotics warehouse system looks rudimentary compared with the huge, arm-whirling automated robots that can be seen at some storage facilities or on automaker assembly lines. But the challenge for the eCommerce supply chain is very different from one for a factory assembly line.
On an assembly line, robotics are used to repeatedly move selected pieces to build the same car over and over again. For Amazon — like other retail fulfillment operations — every online order is unique. Web retailers manage thousands, and sometimes millions, of different products, all with varying weights, sizes, and shapes.
Previously, to fulfill an order warehouse workers had to roam the floor scanning racks of merchandise in search of each specific product, according to an article in MIT Technology Review.
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