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10,000 warehouse robots for Amazon

10 June 2014

Online retail behemoth Amazon plans to have more than 10,000 robots in its warehouses by the end of 2014, reports HSS editor Simon Duddy.

CEO Jeff Bezos recently announced the ambitious plan at the retailer’s annual shareholder meeting in Seattle.

Amazon is estimated to have around 1,300 robots currently working in its fulfillment centres.

Amazon acquired supplier of robotic material handling technology Kiva Systems in 2012 for approximately $775 million.

Amazon said at the time. "We have long used automation in our fulfillment centres, and Kiva's technology is another way to improve productivity by bringing the products directly to employees to pick, pack and stow.”

The distinctive orange robots built by Kiva Systems had been seen in the UK at IMHX 2010 and while they were impressive, nifty little things, it wasn’t immediately clear why the technology was worth such a lot of money.

I have had my doubts about how the robots fitted into the Amazon ecosystem, but this plan to increase the number of robots in use by almost tenfold in less than a year, suggests they play an integral part in Amazon's logistics strategy.

When I spoke to Timothy Collins, director of operations in the EU for Amazon at the end of last year in the wake of the BBC documentary which criticised Amazon for working pickers too hard, he said that while he refuted the BBC allegations, the company was working on increasing its robot footprint, in part to take the strain of warehouse operatives.

"We have had to take the technology and scale it up. It will be coming soon to Europe," he said.

"The key difference with Kiva is that in a facility without it, the picker walks to the ‘mod’, picks the item and takes it to the conveyor. With Kiva, the robot goes to the mod and brings the product to the picker, who then places it on the conveyor. We still use pickers but it lowers the amount of walking they have to do."