Robots for Speedy Delivery: How Robust is Amazon’s Strategy?
Amazon is leveraging mobile robots for the fast delivery of parcels across the world
Whenever one thinks of Amazon one has to think of its incredibly large warehouse network. But not just that. One also has to take into account the thousands of workers manning the warehouse. Their mantra is quick delivery and the driving force is speed. But things are changing in the warehouse front for some time. The tech giant is employing robots as part of its grand project of automation with robotics at the center stage. The post-COVID-19 pandemic era has caused a rush for delivery all around and it has all the more convinced Amazon about the need for mobile robots. The underlying assumption is that these mechanical beings will be quicker than their human counterparts. But is that necessarily true?
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The beginning of the automation of warehouses by Amazon was made a decade back when it had invested a whopping US$775 million to take over Kiva Systems, a robotics company, and ‘employed’ mobile robots to carry products from one place to another inside the workhouse. The robots are sophisticated enough to read barcodes to act according to directions. No doubt, Amazon wants this practice not only to expand but develop further. According to an estimate, mobile robots working for the company now stand at 200,000 with the integration of automation and robotics. The reliance on artificially enabled robots in warehouse movement has also raised apprehension about human labor being replaced by mechanical labor the consequent loss of employment, and so forth. But it is found that the mobile robots are yet to reach the optimum point in speeding up delivery, something the company wants from them, especially to cater to its prime customers.
What are the issues? Despite the speed they pick up, the fact is that faster repetitive functions for a considerable period of time also result in a higher rate of depreciation. When their ‘health’ is affected, their picking efficiency is also impacted. Also, the whole delivery process has a vital role for workers who often have to climb up to bring down products from the top portions of long and tall shelves to enable robots to carry them. No less important, with evident proof of a higher rate of worker injury in warehouses employing robots, the delivery process is affected and the robots by themselves cannot do much to take control of the situation, even with robotics and automation. Not the least, experts studying the dynamics of the Amazon warehouses point out that human pickers are very quick in picking items at an approximate rate of 5-10 seconds per item and to reach that speed with mobile robots is problematic unless greater engineering, algorithmic and robot motion fine-tuning is made.
Amazon is trying to address the problems in an experimental model. In some warehouses, it has employed more sophisticated and larger ‘picker’ robots which can ensure greater speed than the existing ones by taking out products quickly and placing them on ‘carrier’ robots. These ‘picker’ robots are supposed to be more efficient in handling products with equal ease, irrespective of their size, weight, etc. But the company is yet to install them widely. Until that happens the actual speed in the delivery process will be less than the expected one— even with robots around.