Fulfilment Robotics at Amazon Business and their symphony with our future workplace

Earlier this month we attended the first ever Amazon Business conference (Amazon Business Exchange – ABX) held in London. We wrote an overview article highlighting the standout performances of the day for the sessions we attended, which you can read here.

One of those sessions came from Tye Brady, Chief Technologist at Amazon Robotics, who talked about the innovation at the core of the business. We use machines to help us do our jobs better, he began. And his main theme (Star Wars-based, which was very effective) focused on the fusion of human and machine to work collaboratively for better results. In this he set about dispelling the myth that the robots will take over our jobs.

He was very honest in explaining how we overestimate where we think we are with robotics. The truth is, he said, we are just at day 1. If we consider the past 90 years, we’ve seen incredible growth in physics, computing, robotics and other industries, of course not forgetting the TV – all creating new jobs! About 300,000 in fact, he reckons. And by that token, going forward robotics will just create more jobs. The introduction of television was a good illustration of how the picture house and theatre actors believed they would have no jobs, but in fact, the TV has created more jobs for actors (and supporting people) than ever before.

Likewise, creating roles for robotics in an organisation results in the need for more roles for people, as he has witnessed himself at Amazon. The likes of solution architect, entry level data technicians, senior social media manager, app developer are just a few examples. So robots create jobs.

Robots are used to extend human capabilities, was the key message, not take over from them. Which means higher productivity, and more value – for Amazon that translates into huge selection, lower costs and delivery to the door, for the ‘delight’ of the customer. This is key to remember, because they have very different capabilities from one another: Humans are good at problem solving, abstraction, generalisation, creative thinking, and more of course, Robots are better at number crunching, assessing databases, repetitive tasks, heavy lifting! and more of course.

One fascinating example of robots enhancing what we can do and delivering incredible value is seen within the Amazon warehouse itself. Where an associate would go and pick goods within a warehouse for dispatch, fulfilment centres are filled with 200,000 little orange robots (drive units) that deliver the items to the associate. These little ‘pods’ for want of a better word, are stacked with the items for fulfilment. As soon as the buyer clicks ‘buy now’ on the Amazon website, the on-demand, just-in-time robot travels to the associate with the right goods, knowing exactly where to go in the enormous fulfilment centre, in a massively parallel system of isles and isles of goods. It’s super-efficient, and rather awe inspiring to watch these stacks and stacks of items being conveyed up and down, and all over the centre, thousands of times a day. Amazon has 40% more goods fulfilled in its automated warehouses than manual ones: what took someone a day, now takes an hour. And this is one piece of the magic behind the lower prices, the reliability and the fast service we’ve come to expect from Amazon.

It was a fascinating explanation from Tye and a little bit of insight into the mighty Amazon machine. To see for yourself the simplicity and ingenuity behind the system, watch this and scroll to about minute 13 in the video.

He wrapped up leaving us with a very optimistic view of the future of the workplace, with a symphony of machine and human working together.

Amazon Business has uploaded the full set of presentations to its website, for more detail on Tye’s topic, and to see his little orange robots at play, indeed to see all of the other presentations, visit here.

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