Tech

Amazon’s search for the ‘holy grail’ of robots


For decades, one of the most difficult problems for robot developers to solve has been a seemingly trivial one: how to replicate the human hand’s picking ability.

Amazon.com just got a lot closer to achieving this elusive goal, with a leap in automation that promises far-reaching implications for its massive workforce and ambitions for growth in the future. its future.

The tech giant last month unveiled a new collection of robots, one of which is suitable to replace humans in Amazon’s most common job – picking up things and putting them elsewhere. At the core of this new automation is a robotic arm – aptly named Sparrow after the tenacious, pervasive bird – that combines advanced artificial intelligence, a variety of grips as well as a variety of grips. As speed and accuracy are now standard in the industry available. robot arm.

The announcement, which is easy to miss, comes amid a flurry of news, somewhat illustrating some of the challenges Amazon is trying to solve with its automation efforts. The company began laying off its employees in mid-November, part of a sweeping cost-cutting effort to deal with the aftermath of its rapid expansion during the pandemic.

The company’s workforce has more than doubled in that time, exceeding 1.6 million earlier this year. Most of those employees have been added to Amazon’s vast logistics operation, which delivers packages to e-commerce customers. Amazon has struggled to manage the size and morale of that group of employees, some of whom have grown restless with the demands of the highly repetitive work. In October, the company defeated an attempt to consolidate a New York state facility by a newly formed labor group that vowed to continue its campaign.

One of Amazon’s long-term solutions to these problems is that robots could make the roles many of these workers currently fill obsolete, although that’s not how the company talks about its efforts. your automation. Instead, Amazon highlights its automation in terms of benefits for employees.

Tye Brady, chief technician at Amazon Global Robotics, says Amazon’s recently announced robots can help the company reduce both injury rates and revenue in its warehouses. “Robots are good at repetitive tasks and heavy lifting – I want to automate repetitive and boring tasks,” he says.

Sparrow is singular in its capabilities and the size of Amazon’s ambitions for it. On the surface, robots could potentially one day save Amazon billions of dollars in wages and benefits. Or, as leaders at Amazon say, it will allow the company to continue to grow, despite recent labor challenges. “Our goal is to empower employees with the tools they need to do their jobs more efficiently and safely,” said Brady. experience,” he added.

Amazon, along with a host of other robotics companies developing similar machines, is pursuing what experts in the field call the “holy grail” of robotics — smart machines. nimble, nimble and adaptable like a human arm and hand.

Such a robot could one day be capable of handling any of the thousands – or in Amazon’s case millions – of different goods shipped in an e-commerce fulfillment warehouse. typical death.

Amazon’s robotic arm is still in beta. For the company to continue developing it, it must prove its worth, as even Amazon’s robotics division has not escaped broader cost-cutting. A company spokesperson told the Journal that Amazon will lay off 2% of workers in the division, part of the process of deciding which robotics projects to cut and which to double.

Sparrow’s first mission will be part of an experimental, automated goods-handling system the company announced in June. Typically in an Amazon warehouse, robotic “drive units” -boots transport tall, soft-sided shelves for humans, who pick items from those shelves and put them in bins. These boxes then move on a conveyor belt to another part of the warehouse for packaging and delivery.

In Amazon’s new system, instead of being stored in shelves, items are stored in plastic bins placed on actuators. These bins can then be automatically placed in front of humans, at a convenient height, making it less taxing to retrieve items from them, a company spokesperson said.

Sparrow is an attempt to one day replace scavengers during this phase of the operation. It’s no coincidence that what’s handy for a warehouse worker is that a human today also fits into a future robotic arm like Sparrow.

Other robots Amazon recently revealed include Robin and Cardinal, who both sort packages. In June, Amazon announced Proteus, the company’s first fully automated freight robot. Proteus can lift and move large trolleys, weighing up to 800 pounds, while moving through crowded areas.

Currently, Sparrow can only handle about 65% of the items in a typical Amazon warehouse. Those items range from hardcover books to bottles filled with liquids to T-shirts in plastic bags. Ultimately, once Sparrow is good enough at the task, the goal is to replace humans as pickers, Mr. Brady said.

Other companies have developed similar robots, although they intend to handle a narrower range of products than Sparrow robots. These include Ambi Robotics, which supplies parcel-handling robots to the US Postal Service, and RightHand Robotics. That company’s robotic arm can pick up thousands of different items from storage bins and is being used in homes by Paltac, one of Japan’s largest wholesalers of packaged consumer goods. warehouse.

Yaro Tenzer, chief executive officer of RightHand Robotics, says that one thing that is helping the adoption of these robotic picking systems is the technologies that automatically store full containers and deliver the right ones. for robots that are rapidly decreasing in price. . “We sometimes joke here, ‘God bless all the companies that can deliver packages to our robots.'”

Companies offering these robotic storage systems include Attabotics, AutoStore, Alert Innovation, and Dematic.

That said, Amazon hopes to operate on a much larger scale and with a much higher degree of complexity.

“What we are doing is unlike anything that has been done in human history—the scale we are doing,” said Brady.

New types of automation can serve business goals other than reducing the number of employees at a company. For example, Amazon has long relied on certain types of automation in its warehouses, but it continues to hire more warehouse workers — over a million since 2012. All that hiring. Part of that is because the main way Amazon has leveraged automation is, so far, keeping costs low while getting items to consumers faster than ever before.

Mr. Brady said that in the future, when workers leave roles such as porters, they will be transferred to other roles to help the company better serve customers. He doesn’t know exactly what those roles will be, he added.

History holds lessons for those who will use automation to increase productivity. A lot of people have jobs today that didn’t exist at the founding of the United States, when more than two-thirds of Americans were farmers. (Today’s figure is less than 2%.) So it’s not clear that a world full of powerful, dexterous, tireless artificially intelligent robotic arms would mean that all workers are they will instead still work for Amazon.

Maybe in the near future, Amazon’s claim that automation will simply help it do more with its existing workforce — achieve even faster delivery, for example — will prove to be the case. correct. Farther into the future, it’s not clear that even Amazon’s most ambitious goals will require all of the people the company employs today. Indeed, with dozens of companies offering robots like the ones Amazon is building, and the efficiency those robots would allow Amazon’s competitors to achieve, if automated If Amazon’s culture doesn’t allow it to reduce its reliance on people, that could be a threat in the long run. – Long-term viability of the company’s retail operations.

From that perspective, innovation in robotics at Amazon seems an existential question for the company. And its continued investment in technology shows that its leaders know it.

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