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Amazon’s robots take a firm grip on customer orders

With fewer human errors, reduced operational costs, and improved productivity, warehouse automation has always been crucial to Amazon’s success. Now, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics, and even drones are further transforming today’s warehouse. And with a growing labor shortage and an online shopping boom, Amazon continues to build on its e-commerce empire with advanced robotics that can now mimic a human hand. 

More orders handled by robots

By 2025, up to 50% of all e-commerce orders will be processed by autonomous robots. Amazon alone ships around 1.6 million packages a day, which works out to be more than 66 thousand orders per hour. Much of the leading e-commerce company’s success has been how it’s used automation to pack and move goods out of the warehouse. But now, Amazon is progressing on a robot that can grasp various items and pack them — just like a human. 

Watching the robot, which is being developed by Amazon’s robotic team, is almost therapeutic.  

Multitalented robots are getting smarter

The new “pinch-grasping” robot system is set to transform warehouses, replacing many of the mundane and tedious tasks workers repeat daily. According to Amazon, the speedy robot can process over 1,000 items an hour. That’s several times faster than a human could achieve doing the same task. With no human instructions, the intelligent machine seamlessly grabs hold of various sized and shaped items and efficiently pops them onto the conveyor system. 

The multitalented robot isn’t just fast, though. It also has a good eye for detail, with an array of cameras and machine learning to help it decide how to pick something up. The warehouse robot isn’t afraid of crowds either, with motion-planning algorithms allowing it to navigate multiple obstacles without causing any damage.  

Robot weight restrictions

Built last year by Amazon tech researchers, the robotic device was carefully monitored in a controlled lab. Although its features are continuously refined, it has some drawbacks in its current state. One caveat is that it can only handle items that weigh less than two pounds. But within that range, the robot can move about 95% of the objects. While the weight restriction may initially seem like a significant disadvantage, on a bigger scale, the nimble robot would still be able to handle around 50% of Amazon’s entire suite of products.

Fortunately, the e-commerce giant is working on expanding the already advanced robot’s capabilities to handle more than small, light items. Future iterations may see a pincher attachment with a suction functionality and enhanced AI that allows the robot to understand what “hand” to use for each item type. 

Will warehouse robots replace workers?

With the ever-increasing capabilities of warehouse robots to handle products of all shapes and sizes, the question remains as to how long people and robots will need to work in unison or whether the robots could one day replace workers altogether. 

Amazon has always found a harmonious balance between robots and humans. For example, recent robot system prototypes such as Cardinal aims to reduce the risk of employee injury by taking care of tasks that involve maneuvering large or heavy packages.

Following Amazon’s purchase of Kiva (now Amazon Robotics) the company introduced over half a million warehouse robots. However, during this time, they also took on a workforce of more than a million, demonstrating their commitment to people to work alongside robots — rather than replace them altogether. 

Before the Kiva robots were introduced, Amazon workers sometimes walked miles daily, taking or placing items on and off the inventory shelves. Now, with robots doing more legwork, workers can focus on tasks that robots currently can’t handle.  

As robots continue to evolve and take on more tasks usually undertaken by humans, the job roles of those who work in warehouses, such as laborers, become foggier. 

Will the new generation of robots make it easier for people to do their jobs? Or will they spread fear about job losses and discontent over how seamlessly their roles can be replaced? 

Today, robots continue to work alongside warehouse staff, and emerging robotics are still being designed to harmonize humans and machines. But one day, there’s a real possibility of people-less, robot-run warehouses. 

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Richard King avatar

Richard King

Richard is a technology copywriter who aims to simplify the complex world around us using words. As well as an interest in all things tech, he enjoys learning about usability and the overall customer journey. In his free time, he enjoys traveling, skiing, video gaming, and playing the piano and drums. More articles written by Richard.

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