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TECH TIMES - Army of Amazon robots ready to help fulfil orders this holiday season

Published:Monday | December 8, 2014 | 12:00 AM

TRACY, California (MCT):

This holiday season, Amazon's little helper is an orange, 320-pound robot called Kiva.

The robots - more than 15,000 of them companywide - are part of Amazon's high-tech effort to get orders to customers faster. By lifting shelves of Amazon products off the ground and speedily delivering them to employee stations, the robots dramatically reduce the time it takes for workers to find items and put them into boxes for shipment.

On the eve of Cyber Monday, Amazon's year-old warehouse in Tracy, Calif., was buzzing with activity as the retailer prepared for one of the biggest shopping days of the year.

Kiva robots zoomed around the floor with uncanny precision, hoisting shelves containing video games, coloring books and stuffed animals. Yellow bins filled with merchandise zipped by on conveyor belts. A group of employees, some sporting red Santa hats, spent their break doing a series of arm stretches.

More automation

Since acquiring robot-maker Kiva, a Massachusetts company, for US$775 million in cash in 2012, the e-commerce retailer has been increasingly implementing automation at its gargantuan fulfillment centers. Kivas, which resemble overgrown Roombas, are capable of lifting as much as 750 pounds and glide across Amazon's warehouse floors by following rows of sensors.

Sunday was the first time Amazon publicly unveiled the Tracy warehouse, which boasts the company's latest "eighth-generation" fulfillment center technology, including 3,000 Kivas. Ten Amazon warehouses, including two in California, are classified as eighth-generation; Amazon now has 109 fulfilment centres globally.

Dave Clark, Amazon's senior vice president of worldwide operations and customer service, said because Kiva-equipped facilities eliminate the need for wide aisles for humans to walk down, eighth-generation centres can hold 50 per cent more inventory than older warehouses. More storage capacity means a wider selection of merchandise, fewer chances of products being out of stock and more possibilities for same-day delivery, he said.

Virtuous cycle

"It's sort of a virtuous cycle," he said during a tour of the facility. The robots, he added, have also cut processing times for orders to as little as 13 minutes from well over an hour.

The Tracy center, which is more than one million square feet in size and has 1,500 full-time employees, is still not at capacity. It currently houses 21.5 million items (3.5 million unique SKUs), with plans to increase that number to as much as 27 million items next year. On a peak day - such as Cyber Monday - the warehouse ships 700,000 items.

Seattle-based Amazon has been adding new technology to many of its fulfillment centres. Some warehouses utilise Robo-Stow, a six-ton robot that moves merchandise pallets as high as 24 feet directly on to Kiva robots, and "vision systems" that can receive an entire trailer of inventory in as little as 30 minutes by capturing an image of the trailer's contents.