“I don’t think Amazon has figured out how to automate packing,” Scott Anderson, director of Amazon Robotics LLC’s fulfillment center operations, said during a tour of Amazon’s Baltimore warehouse. The site packs and ships tens of thousands of packages every day.
Anderson said it could take a decade or more for the retail giant to automate the process of packing merchandise into boxes or putting goods onto shelves, where they wait for customers to place an order. Humans are better at maneuvering a box of soap into a storage bin or laying it into a cardboard box.
And if you’re ordering fresh food, humans will continue to pick out the produce. A robot can’t yet tell the difference between ripe bananas and hard ones, said Derek Jones, who oversees employee health and safety for Amazon facilities that ship food.
In North America, Amazon operates more than 150 facilities processing and shipping merchandise, employing 125,000 people. About 2,700 people work at the Baltimore fulfillment center.
Rise of the Robots
But when it comes to moving storage units filled with merchandise, Amazon is well into automating much of the work.
The backbone of the company’s robot force are 100,000-plus wheeled, squat robots called “drives.” They’re just under a foot tall and their flat tops can carry entire shelves of merchandise to workers filling orders.
Instead of filling rows of fixed shelves, Amazon puts the shelves atop the robots. When a worker needs a specific item for an order, the computer system locates the product and automatically dispatches the robot-mounted shelf to the employee.
The machines are designed in-house by Amazon Robotics LLC, formerly Kiva Systems LLC, in North Reading, Mass. Amazon acquired Kiva in 2012, part of its push to add robotics.
Other warehouse operators have followed Amazon’s path into the robot business. Today robots assist many of the roughly 1 million Americans employed in warehousing and storage industries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Amazon’s first generation of robots, entering service in 2014, were a foot tall and could lift 750 pounds. But the latest, more compact generation, called Hercules, can lift up to 1,500 pounds.
The robots use floor-mounted QR codes to guide themselves to workers’ stations.
Humans generally aren’t allowed to be in the same areas as the free ranging robots and their cargo.
When workers, such as maintenance technicians, need to enter an area where the robots are roaming, the employee wears a very fancy work vest—think of a fisherman’s or photographer’s vest equipped with a tablet computer—that transmits a warning signal.
To make sure unauthorized people don’t enter the robots’ territory, tall chain-link fencing keeps humans and robots seperate.
Amazon also has large industrial robots with lifting arms that raise pallets of goods to upper levels and move plastic containers, about the size of a household recycling bin. Workers are prohibited from being within range of the arms and movement sensors shut down the arms if a worker gets too close.
While some logistics companies are starting to automate the filling of truck trailers to ship items out of a warehouse, Anderson said Amazon believes humans are better at figuring out how to fill trailers.
Laws of Robotics
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t have a rule specifically for protecting workers from robots and there’s no plan to create one. An agency official told Bloomberg Law that if OSHA did try to write a rule, a process that can take several years, technological changes would outpace the requirements.
However, employers are required to follow a mix of regulations protecting workers from being struck or entrapped by machinery (29 C.F.R 1910.212) or by unexpectedly activated machines (29 C.F.R. 1910.147).
OSHA does often expect employers to follow industry-written consensus standards for robot safety.
The International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) standards are ISO 10218, Robots and Robotic Devices—Safety Requirements for Industrial Robots, and ISO 15066, Safety Requirements for Industrial Robots—Collaborative Operation.
The primary U.S. standard, modeled on the ISO standard and issued by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Robotic Industries Association, is ANSI/RIA R15.06, Industrial Robots and Robot Systems-Safety Requirements.
Automated ground vehicles, such as self-driving forklifts, are for the most part governed by the Industrial Truck Standards Development Foundation’s ANSI/ITSDF B56.5.