Analysis

Guest comment: How UK distribution centres can replicate Amazon’s robotics success

Amazon Robots in warehouse

It has been estimated that warehouse robots have cut Amazon’s operational costs by $22m in each warehouse where they’re located since being introduced two years ago. Alexey Tabolkin believes that allowing people and robots to work to their strengths lies at the heart of Amazon’s recently reported success.

Alexey Tabolkin Amazon is going from strength to strength, with the opening of new fulfilment centres in Tilbury and Doncaster recently announced.   This is all part of its strategy to build its UK network to meet growing customer demand, while offering support for its ‘Fulfilment by Amazon’ service.

This is great news for the 1,500 new employees that Amazon will recruit to staff the new centres.  But operators of distribution centres and warehouses in the UK should also have noted that these workers will be supported by an army of robots, which will also be rolled out across Amazon’s UK business.  Robots are playing an increasingly important role for the online giant, and now this technology is available to all, no matter the size of the operation.

Warehouse robots deliver 20% Savings in 2 Years

The important role robots are playing in Amazon’s operations became apparent in June, when a Deutsche Bank note revealed that Amazon’s 2012 purchase of robotics developer Kiva has turned out to be a very wise investment indeed.

According to one report in BusinessInsider.co.uk, it is only since 2014 that Amazon has been utilising Kiva’s robots, but that in the 2-year period since, robots cut operating expenses by about 20%, adding that this translates to roughly $22 million in cost savings – per fulfilment centre

Furthermore, it estimated that Amazon could cut another $800 million once it deploys more robots across the 110 fulfilment centres that don’t have them yet. Amazon uses Kiva robots in 13 of its fulfilment centres currently.

Even allowing for the scale of Amazon’s operations, these are astonishing figures.  So it is worth looking at how Amazon’s configuration has achieved such savings, and how the rest of the industry can follow suit.

What warehouse robots bring

Introducing robots into your workforce brings immediate improvements:

  • Efficiency:  Up to 70% of personnel time in a non-automated e-fulfilment centre is spent ‘on foot’: literally walking aisles and gangways searching for and retrieving goods.
  • Accuracy: Most warehouses and DCs will offer the impressive sounding ‘99%’ answer when asked about the accuracy of their orders.  This sounds impressive, but for growing operations, the errant 1% represents a significant cost.
  • Increased Output: With 70% of personnel time saved by eliminating walking, searching and retrieving activities, this allows that reclaimed personnel time to be spent at picking/packing stations.  Automation using ‘goods to person’ solutions improves picking by up to six fold.

Amazon robotsDivision of labour 

Where Amazon got it right was in the division of labour: what tasks are people better at performing, and where can robots improve on our performance?  

Clearly, people win on both decision making and dexterity.  No robot can ‘make a decision’ that it’s operator hasn’t pre-programmed into the WMS, while manual dexterity still remains elusive for robots for all but the most mundane tasks.   

However, finding, retrieving, and carrying to picking stations are also central to the e-fulfilment operation, as are organisation, prioritising, logging and adjusting according to ‘big data’, and here robots easily outscore people.   A robot’s operation is unfettered by the simple human failings we all share: concentration, tiredness, boredom, distraction.  Robots will happily work their shifts and the last shuttle it retrieves will be 100% as accurate as its first.  For these tasks, robots are simply better – and faster – than us!

The challenge is to develop a solution that marries the best of both worlds.  Amazon’s strategy does just this – it has identified the strengths of each part of its workforce, and lets them get on with it.

Efficiency gap

Notwithstanding recent developments in collaborative robots (‘cobots’)  – where robots and people share the same workspace – Amazon’s ‘segregationist’ approach between people and robots is precisely what has allowed it to reap such savings: by allowing each to get on with the tasks they are best suited to without interference from the other.

The reason for this is simple.  Some recent solutions see people and cobots sharing the same workspace, perhaps as a ‘companion’ following the picker around, or travelling from zone to zone.  These robots share the same floor space with humans.

This is where the ‘efficiency gap’ arises.  Clearly, cobots must place the safety of human co-workers above all else: so stopping/slowing at junctions, or when they encounter a human co-worker must be built in as safety features.  The ‘efficiency gap’ occurs here – when the robots must work at sub-optimal efficiency simply to avoid collision.

In Amazon’s solution, both sections of the workforce are kept apart, and this allows both parties to concentrate on the tasks they each do best, with minimal ‘interference’ from the other: people for decision making and manual dexterity, and robots for the repetitive tasks that require travelling around the warehouse, retrieving the correct goods, and presenting them in the correct order for picking.  

Work at the speed of robots

In this way, humans work to the speed of robot retrieval, rather than having robots work to the speed of humans.  And dividing the work space can also have additional hidden benefits – like savings on lighting and heating, neither of which robots require to perform their tasks.

Investment in developments in cobots will undoubtedly lead to better solutions in the future and their place in the logistics and transport sector will be established. However, technology replicating manual dexterity remains in its infancy, with proposed solutions all still at the experimental stage.   In the meantime, solutions like Amazon’s enable the sector to capitalise on the most advanced robotics technology for the tasks it can manage better, faster, and more accurately than people.

The design of your robotic automation operation should be undertaken with the goal of maximising efficiency and cutting operating costs.  And this means allowing humans do what they do best, and allowing robots operate to their maximum efficiency in their segregated zone.

Alexey Tabolkin is CEO of EiraTech Robotics, the Dublin based developer of automation systems for the warehouse and e-fulfilment sector.


Image credits:

  • Amazon for media use only