Robot warehouse

Amazon has a new warehouse robot: Is the future autonomous?

Categories: Warehouse.

Automation has become more ingrained in the transportation and logistics industries over the years. Now, we’re reaching a critical juncture where it has become essential to warehouse operations for some of the world’s leading distributors. 

34% of supply chain leaders say that adapting to new tech is the most important strategic change supply chain organizations will face five years from now — but what solutions will they be adopting? Most believe that hyperautomation, next-generation robots, autonomous pickers and packers, and digital twins will come to define the landscape in the decade to come. This is the future of logistics.

One recent addition to this wave of innovation is Amazon’s robot, Proteus. Warehouse tech professionals are wondering: How does this fit into the bigger trends in automation, and what should we expect from this new innovation?

Meet Amazon’s newest robot

First, a little background: Amazon has been in the robotics world since 2012, when they acquired robotics startup Kiva. That acquisition and build-out of new tech suites has allowed them to introduce automation and robotics into their facilities, quickly building a fleet of around a dozen varieties of highly specialized robotic systems to manage picking, packing, and other logistics roles.

Their newest creation, Proteus, is their first “fully autonomous mobile robot,” and can complete its jobs with limited direct human intervention. As opposed to previous robotics which have been isolated in an area away from people, Proteus is designed to work alongside them as a part of the team.

In spring of 2022, Amazon’s new CEO promised to systematically address the injury rates at the warehouses during his first letter to company shareholders. The hope is that Proteus will allow for rapid transport of goods from section to section, hitting efficiency targets while also improving safety on the floor.

What does Proteus do?

The Proteus robot can pick freight up, put it down, and transport it from one place to another. Amazon’s aim with the Proteus bot is “to automate GoCart handling throughout the network, which will help reduce the need for people to manually move heavy objects through our facility and instead let them focus on more rewarding work.”

This new robot tech addresses a pain point for Amazon’s human workforce, who historically have relied on human energy and heavy manned machinery like forklifts. That burden has become more complicated by shortages of labor and a company culture that is notorious for its burnout rate.

In addition to Proteus, other advanced lifting robots — such as Cardinal, a robotic arm that can move goods weighing up to 50 lbs — will reduce injuries by taking over transport of heavy parcels that commonly lead to injuries. Cardinal is expected to deploy starting next year.

Trends in automation

According to tech watchers at Gartner, other top supply chain technology trends for 2022 include hyperautomation 2.0, next generation robots, and autonomous things. How does each fit into the framework of the modern warehouse?

Hyperautomation 2.0 – Hyperautomation is typically understood as the desire to rapidly identify and automate as many business/IT processes as possible using artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Hyperautomation 2.0, on the other hand, zooms past that lofty objective with the aim of simultaneously integrating additional technology systems and tools into the framework. For example, hyperautomated intelligent remote networks will also be able to manage fulfillment in warehouses or yard management domains, with personalized e-commerce applications that turn linear workflows into 4D chess.

Next-generation robots – What hyperautomation 2.0 does for software and task management, next-gen robots do for the physical activity of order management and list making, sorting, and picking and packing goods. We’ve covered some of Amazon’s latest robots, but other systems are in the works to handle numerous warehousing and shipping tasks.

Next-gen robots will be more flexible to handle a wider variety of tasks, and eventually, they’ll be able to interact and collaborate with other robots to complete a job. This comes in addition to advances in assisted driving tech for big rigs, low-carbon technologies and electrification efforts, and much more.

Autonomous things – Human oversight is costly and susceptible to error. Automation throughout the warehouse system will improve efficiency, but it will also improve margins and reduce the likelihood of both delays and serious injuries.

Currently, technology is in the works to make numerous physically taxing operations more safe and efficient with the help of largely automated robots, vehicles, and drones.  

Will warehouses ever become completely autonomous? 

Even though Amazon is seemingly running out of qualified people to work their facilities, they say their plan is to create a space where technology and people work together rather than striving for full autonomy.  It seems there will be a role for human workers in the warehouse of tomorrow for the foreseeable future.

Or, as leadership at Amazon’s robotics division told Forbes recently, “replacing people with machines is just a fallacy.”

We’ve discussed the benefits and challenges of implementing smart warehousing here at length. In short, the benefits include working toward a safer environment for staff, with less need to tackle physically demanding tasks that can lead to injury, and fewer repetitive movements that could ultimately be harmful. There is an upper limit to how productive people can be — human motion can only be so quick and efficient for short periods of time. Automation can help move the needle.

Despite this tangible benefit, both warehouse workers and supervisors bristle at the proposition of increasing automation. In one Harvard Business review survey, 42% of negative responses from workers stemmed from fears that automation would lead to lost jobs. This has led to difficulty with implementation that are made worse by a lack of understanding and communication between engineers and developers in the home office and the warehouse employees on the ground. 

Conclusion

Amazon’s newest robotic addition to their warehouses is just the beginning. Along with other large companies, the world’s largest ecommerce retailer is using advanced automation to maintain their lead in the supply chain. Staying competitive isn’t easy, no matter how big or small you are.

Fortunately, having the right partner with up-to-date software technologies can ensure your products get to their final destination, and improve your transparency along the way. Portside warehousing made available by 3PLs like Globecon at the Port of LA can prevent bottlenecks and restocking issues, while allowing you to expand capacity to meet increasing demand (without the massive investment and buildout of a new warehouse). The result is a better experience for your end customers.

Contact us for warehousing and more near the ports of LA and Long Beach.