Amazon’s future involves artificial intelligence and robotics, but AI-powered machines won’t be doing the majority of the work for a while. According to Scott Anderson, the director of Amazon Robotics Fulfillment, technology is a decade away from fully automating a single order picked up by a worker inside the Amazon warehouse.
Anderson says there’s a misperception that Amazon will soon be running fully automated warehouses. But the technology for a robot to pick up a product from a bin without damaging the other products, or picking up multiple products, is still years away.
“In the current form, the technology is very limited,” said Anderson. “The technology is very far from the fully automated workstation that we would need.”
Amazon is currently in the midst of exploring new technologies to automate the various steps they need to get a package to shoppers. Robots that are currently in the workforce are only capable of performing specific, repeatable tasks.
Time-consuming and expensive programming is necessary to get a robot to perform a complicated task. Even simple robots need complex and sophisticated software to identify an object and pick it up.
Because of the software’s complexity, updates are often slow to come, especially if a system is already working well enough for the meantime. For instance, hydraulic fracturing has been in use for more than 60 years and is still as proven as ever.
Research and experimental trials are still being done to develop robots that can see and understand their surroundings. Only when robots can do these things would they be able to perform multiple different tasks in dynamic environments like an Amazon warehouse.
Amazon is also choosing not to employ robots in its warehouses that handle fresh food. Derek Jones, the global director of environment, health, and safety at Amazon Fresh and Amazon Pantry, says it would be difficult for a robot to identify the produce a customer would want.
“Just imagine if you want bananas,” said Jones. “I want my bananas to be firm, others like their bananas to be ripe. How do you get a robot to choose that?”
Although Amazon’s headquarters are in Seattle and its second headquarters is planned for New York City, the retail giant runs 110 warehouses in the United States. About 45 of them are supercenters and 50 of them are delivery stations. The company employs up to 125,000 people.
The Amazon warehouses that do use robots handle general merchandise including clothing, bikes, and kayaks. Amazon says they’re not planning to change the level of productivity in its warehouses to catch up with its recent one-day shipping announcement for Prime members. Instead, the company plans to make changes to its delivery and transportation processes.
That said, although payroll is the second largest expense for offices, it’s safe to say that robots are too imprecise right now for Amazon to consider fully automating its warehouses. Amazon will continue to use its small, Roomba-shaped robots called “drives” in the meantime to deliver large stacks of products to its human workers.