Amazon is preparing the e-commerce of tomorrow with its army of robots

5 billion: parcels delivered by Amazon in 2021, meaning more than 13 million per day. This number should be larger this year despite a slowdown in online sales that Wall Street was reluctant to chastise in the third quarter. However, the American giant, which plans to lay off around 10,000 employees, is still the world leader in e-commerce. A status acquired by Jeff Bezos’ group thanks to its ability to further reduce delivery times.

Amazon has no choice but to step up its pace of change, while major retail players (Walmart in the United States, Carrefour in France with Google’s support) have raised a gear in their digital transformation — with relative son success. Competition among start-ups has also increased from fast tradewhose dark shops sprouted like mushrooms in the world’s major cities, ensuring delivery in just 10 minutes.

With Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, near Boston the group aims to improve its order processing process. Unsurprisingly, improvement meant automation, and so the company created a dedicated robotics arm in 2012, building on the $775 million acquisition of power specialist Kiva. After 10 years, 520,000 robots have been deployed in warehouses by the Amazon Robotics branch. 75% of the group’s customer orders involve robotics.

BOS27, the robotics innovation laboratory

These robots are the result of the work of 200 employees based on the BOS27 site. No “bondesque” reference here, but a code name referring to the 27th site Amazon has built near Boston. Located in the countryside in Westborough (Massachusetts) to favor possible extensions, this robotics innovation center took over another site. The latter, located a few kilometers away, is actually too small to respond positively to Amazon’s ambitions.

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In a 32,500 m² warehouse, Amazon develops, tests and manufactures robots that will work in its 400 distribution centers around the world. We see particular Hercules robots coming off the production lines, capable of lifting shelves full of products and moving them smoothly thanks to artificial intelligence (AI).

Sparrow, the most successful robot

But if this system has been effective in having 40% of the space in Amazon’s warehouses, the star of the moment is called Sparrow. It is an articulated arm, which the computer and AI vision allows it to see and catch the products before packaging, using cylindrical tubes, to place them with precision in a crate and thus will simplify the preparation of orders. The e-merchant is proud of its new technological gem, capable of handling millions of products, regardless of their size or shape. The noise generated by this machine is up to Amazon’s expectations: very loud!

Sparrow is even more remote than its predecessors, only able to move packages to warehouses. Thus, the Robin robot has been deployed for 18 months in distribution centers, while a more advanced version, called Cardinal, is scheduled to debut at the end of the year. Currently being tested in Texas, Sparrow isn’t expected to hit warehouses until 2024.

The Sparrow is an articulated arm capable of detecting and capturing products before they are packed.

© Maxence Fabrion/Digitals

In addition to Sparrow, Amazon relies on Proteus for more liquidity in its distribution centers. This is the group’s first robot capable of moving around employees, unlike other models that navigate a dedicated unmanned area to avoid accidents. On the day of our visit to Amazon’s logistics innovation center near Boston, the Proteus, which lifts and moves carts full of goods, seemed a little shy to reveal the extent of its potential. Regardless, this first autonomous mobile robot opens new horizons for the company, with more interactions between machines and employees.

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1 million jobs have been created since 2012

The stakes are high for the group, as nearly half of the occupational accidents recorded in the United States in 2021 occurred in its logistics centers. However, Amazon has repeatedly reminded us that its top priority is the safety of its employees. Regarding the criticism of job-destroying robotization, the US giant brushes it aside, ensuring that the introduction of robotics in its facilities has generated more than a million jobs since 2012.

At the same time, 700 new job categories were created in the company to adapt to the technological evolution of machines. “Robotics has a dramatic impact on work, said Tye Brady, Chief Technologist of Amazon Robotics. The idea is to automate repetitive tasks with low added value so that employees can focus on more interesting, more creative tasks. Thus, employees become more collaborative and productive, which generates more growth, promotes the emergence of innovations, and therefore contributes to the creation of new job categories. Machine and man work together in the same direction. Machines are there to help people, not to exploit them. The human brain is at the heart of our system.”

A new drone to take Prime Air off the ground

To reach more customers and deliver its parcels faster, Amazon also wants to reach higher. This is the role assigned to its Prime Air branch, headed by David Carbon. “To deliver a large selection of items in less than an hour, and sometimes even 30 min, on a large scale, drones are the best choicehe believes It’s not that difficult to deliver a package by air.”

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However, there is no shortage of obstacles, between increasingly saturated airspace, very strict regulations or even the changeable weather. Moreover, a Bloomberg investigation revealed in April that the development of Prime Air is far from being a long calm river, despite the 2 billion dollars spent since 2013 on the project. Prime Air hopes to take off for good with a new drone model, the MK30, which was presented to the press on November 10 at BOS27. Smaller and lighter than the previous version (MK27-2), it is able to fly in light rain.

Amazon - PrimeAir

With its drones, Amazon wants to ensure deliveries in less than an hour.

© Maxence Fabrion/Digitals

More resistant to climate hazards, the MK30 can also reach smaller gardens, thus allowing Amazon to reach more customers. However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the US police in the skies, continues to be vigilant and large-scale drone delivery is not yet a reality. It’s still a testing time for Amazon and its competition.

That doesn’t stop the giant from nursing strong ambitions with Prime Air. It has thus set itself the goal of delivering 500 million packages by drone each year by the end of the decade, which could operate in highly populated areas such as Boston, Atlanta and Seattle. The MK30 should help achieve this goal, but the engine won’t enter service until 2024. In the meantime, Prime Air is planning initial deliveries with the MK27-2 to Lockeford (California) and College Station (Texas) by the end of 2022.

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A more connected last mile to make a difference

The future of Amazon therefore passes through the sky, but the team led by Andy Jassy does not forget the segment where it shines: the last mile on dry land. To be effective in this strategic field of e-commerce, the company can count on a team of developers, scientists and data engineers to enrich a navigation system capable of automatically generating more than 148,000 routes. During the holiday season, this number rises to 225,000.

To support its deliverers, Amazon this year launched Fleet Edge, a device that collects images of streets traveled, then cross-checks with GPS data to design more complete maps, especially adding road signs or any other information to improve delivery routes. In fact, having a better knowledge of the environment makes it possible to choose the most suitable means of transport so that the journey is as fast as possible.

Among the means of transportation used, Amazon puts a lot of emphasis on the electric vans of the American neo-constructor Rivian. Currently, the e-merchant has 1,000 of them delivering in around 100 cities, but plans to ramp up and have a fleet of 100,000 vehicles by 2030.

Amazon - Rivian

Amazon wants to have a fleet of 100,000 Rivian electric vans by 2030.

© Amazon

Beyond the green argument, Rivian’s electric vans are an opportunity for Amazon to have a complete logistics network, which is increasingly tending to free itself from UPS and FedEx. These vehicles also allow the group to boast of its innovation capabilities in its deliverables. In fact, Rivian vans offer a very sophisticated living space with two screens: one to show the route and the other to use the on-board computer. From there to instigating real “delivery Teslas”, there’s only one step Amazon seems willing to take.

In a video shown to the press at BOS27, a delivery woman confirmed that she had an impression “driving the future”to the point of “your feelings [elle était] on Star Trek”. A comparison that is obviously exaggerated, but underlines the intentions of the juggernaut of online commerce. Not Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon who wants to get closer to the stars with Blue Origin, would say otherwise.

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