Amazon’s latest warehouse is testing the limits of autonomous control and human-machine collaboration.
A few miles east of Pennsylvania, Amazon are reviving the once industrial powerhouse of Robbinsville into a dizzying hive of activity. They’re latest fulfillment center co-locates both humans and machines, working together in true symbiosis and coordinated harmony. Aside from showcasing the un-paralleled efficiencies of Amazon’s operations, the factory gives a sneak preview as to what the future may hold as technology starts to assist human operators with many simple manual tasks.
Amazon are early adopters, but are not the only users of this technology, the increasing popularity goes along way in estimating the rate of efficiency-change the world could be subject to as this technology matures.
At the center of the warehouse is a storage space, containing square shelves filled to the brim with Amazons extensive product inventory. Kiva Robots guide these shelves around the shop floor to dynamically choreograph the products into neatly packed rows. The warehouse distribution robots can then transport these storage pods around the factory to human pickers where they are re-filled with new goods or removed for packaging.
“They’re pretty quick and efficient,” says Emily Specca, who works on the picking line in the Robbinsville plant. But she says sometimes the robots malfunction, slowing her down, and she confesses that she’d probably quite like to be able to walk around once in a while”.
They are controlled by a central computer and navigate using markers on the ground. Amazon has begun exploring ways that it might someday automate some of the shelf-picking work at its factories. However, robots are still incapable of tasks that require fine manipulation or improvisation, so it is useful to devise ways for robots to collaborate with humans more effectively.
“It’s a natural outgrowth of efforts to harness cheap computing power to make robots more collaborative,” says Wily Shih, a professor at Harvard Business School.
Amazon’s robots may indeed be just the first of many more collaborative robots. “I think everyone is experimenting with them now,” says Harvard’s Shih. “So you’ll see a whole range.”
Besides the autonomous warehouse distribution shelves, human operators are working in close collaboration with an array of automated lines. Products flow through the warehouse at a dizzying rate, tracked from arrival to dispatch by intelligent conveyor systems utilising vision technology to recognize the products after they’ve been unpacked.
From one side of the factory to the other, workers pack products into boxes along with guidance from Amazons central computer. Items received from storage are automatically identified and sorted into batches destined for a single consumer. The computer has already predetermined the dimensions of the product and allocated the right sized box, even the correct amount of packaging sundries to go along with it (tape, protective wrapping etc…). Boxes are then sent to dispatch where they are weighed to identify any anomalies that could have occurred in the packaging process.
We like to think of it as a symphony of software, machine learning, computer algorithms, and people,” Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman “And the people are such an important component; the technology wouldn’t mean anything if you didn’t have great employees that help interact and engage with it.”