Dive Brief:

  • Amazon last week unveiled its first fully autonomous mobile robot, named Proteus, which will lift and move package-carrying carts through its facilities.
  • Proteus will first be deployed in outbound handling areas for GoCarts — non-automated, wheeled transports used to move packages — in fulfillment centers and sort centers, according to a company blog post. It autonomously moves in facilities and around employees via technology Amazon developed.
  • “Our vision is to automate GoCart handling throughout the network, which will help reduce the need for people to manually move heavy objects through our facility and instead let them focus on more rewarding work,” reads Amazon’s blog post.

Dive Insight:

The presence of robots in Amazon’s massive fulfillment network has grown rapidly since 2012, when the company acquired Kiva Systems and began using robotics in its facilities.

Three years ago, Amazon already had more than 200,000 robotic drive units deployed. Today, it’s more than 520,000, and the company counts more than a dozen types of robotic systems in its facilities.

Amazon’s continued push to invest in robotics comes as the company has suddenly found itself overstaffed at its facilities after years of rapid expansion to keep up with the e-commerce boom. It’s also faced union drives and continued complaints over its warehouse safety record.

Amazon’s recordable incident rates were higher than average compared to warehouse peers, CEO Andy Jassy disclosed in his 2021 Letter to Shareholders, citing U.S. public numbers.

“At our scale (we hired over 300,000 people in 2021 alone, many of whom were new to this sort of work and needed training), it takes rigorous analysis, thoughtful problem-solving, and a willingness to invent to get to where you want,” Jassy wrote.

Amazon has touted the robots it deploys for their ability to ease the physical burden on employees. Other companies from a variety of sectors are also investing more in robotics to meet higher demand and to maximize employee productivity in a challenging labor environment.

Beyond Proteus, Amazon detailed other recent robotics innovations in its blog post:

  • Cardinal: A “robotic workcell” that selects, lifts and reads the label of a specific package out of a pile. It then places the selected package in a GoCart. This converts batch-based manual work into continuous, automated work. Amazon is testing a prototype to handle packages up to 50 pounds, and it expects to deploy it in fulfillment centers next year.
  • Amazon Robotics Identification (AR ID): An AI-powered scanning capability that uses a camera system to remove the manual scanning process. Scanning at Amazon fulfillment centers is currently done manually.
  • Containerized Storage System: A system that can find a container with a needed product, figure out how to move it to the employee and pick up the container once the employee has retrieved the product. This cuts down on the need for employees to reach, bend or climb to retrieve items.

While Amazon has deployed a variety of robots throughout its supply chain, Proteus stands out for its ability to navigate unrestricted areas employees are present in.

“Historically, it’s been difficult to safely incorporate robotics in the same physical space as people,” reads Amazon’s blog post. “We believe Proteus will change that while remaining smart, safe, and collaborative.”



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