How Amazon Triggered a Robot Arms Race

The 30,000 Kiva robots at Amazon warehouses have reduced the online retail giant’s operating expenses by 20% — and inspired several tech companies to create the mechanical material handler of the future.

When Amazon’s executive decided to use the robots for Amazon and Amazon alone, ending the sale of Kiva’s products to warehouse operators and retailers that had come to rely on them, current Kiva owners had to find other options to keep up with an ever-increasing consumer need for speed.  But, there were no other options at the time.

It’s taken four years, but a handful of startups are finally ready to replace Kiva and equip the world’s warehouses with new robotics. Amazon’s (30,000+) Kiva bots proved this kind of automation is more efficient than an all-human workforce, saving the company about 20% in operating expenses.

Locus, a spinoff of a company called Quiet Logistics, decided in 2014 to take the leap and develop its own technology.  Thus far, Locus robots can only be found humming along the corridors of Quiet Logistics warehouses, but the company says it signed on with three major retailers for pilot projects that may start this summer. Locus’s robotic minions are much smaller than their Kiva counterparts. Rather than haul around entire pods of merchandise, the Locus bots scurry to warehouse workers and prompt them with a touchscreen. Human workers, each in charge of a particular zone, retrieve the items and give them to the robots, which then move on to the next spot.

Locus logistics robot

Locus Robot

Fetch Robotics and Harvest Automation make variations of a warehouse robot that follows workers around, catching the items they pick off the shelves. While many of the new systems focus on moving stuff around, a whole generation of robots is trying to automate the picking process—grabbing items off shelves—through more dexterous methods. There’s Toru, a bot from German firm Magazino that can grab individual items, for example.

The next step appears to be drones, which Amazon has already recognized.  But, as promising as all this technology may be, robots aren’t going to do away with human-run warehouses entirely—not yet, anyway. The flesh-and-blood variety is still considered better for high-value work like making sure the right product goes in the right box.

> Read more by Kim Bashin and Patrick Clark, Bloomberg Technology, June 29, 2016