During my research into how drones can disrupt the package delivery industry I first wanted to ground myself in the process of how Amazon ships packages today. My expectations going into it were that there are many people involved in a process that is archaic and very manual. What I discovered is a logistical system that is technologically advanced far beyond what I had initially thought. I felt it was important to share some of the findings that were not able to make it into my presentation due to time restrictions. If you are like me, you may have a greater appreciation of how complex and innovative the systems are that get our packages from point A to point B.
For a package to make its way across the country or world it will pass through a network of interconnected boats, ships and vehicles. Amazon is a particularly powerful example of just how large this system can be. Amazon has about 300 semi-trucks, 20,000 regular trucks, 50 planes and also utilizes cargo ships that go between China and the United States. This allows the company to control the entire process of shipping if it chooses. However, due to the volume of packages that Amazon must move, they often contract out to third parties to assist with some deliveries.
Other companies like UPS and FedEx also have similar networks that they rely on to ship packages across the country and world. What separates Amazon from the pack is how they can quickly move product by using technology in their fulfillment and sorting centers. Amazon has over 200,000 total robots in use throughout their warehouses. That number has grown quickly from 2012 when Amazon bought robotics company Kiva Systems for $775M. Kiva was the first company to introduce robots that could assist with moving products within warehouses and had many major customers like Walgreens, Staples, and GAP. When Amazon purchased Kiva, they decided their robots were too important to allow these competitors to benefit from them and they actually removed the robots from circulation. Amazon would go on to incorporate Kiva into their Amazon Robotics unit, which has grown into becoming the powerhouse for their fulfillment and sorting centers.
The way the robots have become integrated into the warehouses is truly fascinating. In the fulfillment centers, where packages are first put together, the robots play a key role in simplifying the activities of the “stowers” and “pickers”. The stowers put items on the shelves when they come into the warehouse from a retailer and the pickers retrieve items from the shelves when they are purchased by a customer. These workers would often walk 10 to 20 miles per day as they performed their duties because the fulfillment centers are so large (on average 800,000 square feet). The robots can now bring the shelves over to the workers who are stationary and do not have put the continuous strain on their bodies.
In the sorting centers, where the packages are routed to their final destination, the robots are essential in moving packages within the warehouse system. When packages are first brought to a local sorting center, a human will scan each barcode by hand. The shipment then needs to make its way to the correct chutes that are designated for its specific zip code. Once the package goes down the chute, it needs to be bundled together appropriately by weight and placed on a delivery truck. This is a multistep process that has many touchpoints. Luckily the robots help with many of these tasks. Once the human has scanned the bar code, the robot will take the package and bring it to the correct chutes. It will know which chutes have already received many packages and place it in the one that can handle the weight of the current item. It does this all while working in unison with the hundreds of other robots who are doing the same task. It is a logistical marvel that is enabled by the rapid advances of technology.
There is no doubt that the robots within the Amazon warehouses have had significant positive impacts for both the company and employees. The marathons that the pickers and stowers in the fulfillment centers had to walk each day have been drastically reduced. The wear and tear on workers in the sorting centers has significantly decreased as well because they no longer have to walk to the chutes to drop off the packages. The chutes also have even distributions of weight when they are bundled together and put on trucks by the humans, which makes their job easier. However, it is reasonable to ask the question of at what point are humans no longer going to be necessary within the Amazon warehouses?
The answer to that question is unknown, but it is more likely a matter of when it will happen, not if it will happen. The most important task that humans do in this process is physically pick up and move items to and from the shelves. This is an activity that is hard to replicate in a robot due to the varying size, weights and shapes that products come in. Jeff Bezos did, however, predict that the solution for that issue could come within the next decade. The trajectory of technological developments would seem to indicate that the majority of activities performed by humans in the warehouses could be performed by robots within our lifetimes.
With about 1.2 million employees worldwide that work for Amazon, this will obviously cause a seismic shift in the job market. The encouraging news is that Amazon has taken steps to preserve their workforce and help them become even more important to the company. They have pledged to “upskill” 100,000 workers to help them develop the skills needed to make an impact in the future at Amazon. I think this continued support of lower-skilled workers is important because they have played an important role in getting the company to where it is now. They deserve to be invested in as they have given their time and energy towards setting the company up for success. After learning more about how complex the process is through the combination of human and robotic efforts, I now hold a greater respect for how each plays a crucial role in getting my package to me so quickly.