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Amazon’s ‘Sequoia’ Robotics System Aims to Revolutionize Warehouse Operations

As Amazon seeks to outpace competitors in delivery speed, its warehouses now feature a sophisticated system of robots and human workers for maximum efficiency

Sequoia

Amazon is taking a significant leap into the future with the introduction of new AI and robotic technologies into its warehouses. This exciting transformation aims to speed up deliveries, enhance inventory management, and maintain safety, ultimately revamping the entire logistical process of how products move within Amazon’s fulfillment centers.

The spotlight is on Amazon’s latest robotics system, named “Sequoia,” inspired by the towering trees from California’s Sierra Nevada. The company envisions humans and these advanced machines collaborating seamlessly. This synergy is not only expected to boost efficiency but also to prioritize safety, with the goal of reducing on-the-job injuries.

However, the pressing question remains: What does this mean for Amazon’s vast workforce? While the specifics remain hazy, Amazon emphasizes that they don’t perceive these advancements as a means to phase out jobs.

According to David Guerin, Amazon’s director of robotic storage technology, Sequoia brings an array of benefits. It slashes the order fulfillment time by up to a quarter and speeds up inventory identification and storage by a whopping 75%. This week, a warehouse in Houston became the first to implement the Sequoia system. Guerin underlines the core advantage: “The faster we process inventory, the higher the chances of meeting our delivery promises.” He envisions Sequoia being integral to Amazon’s operations within the next three to five years.

In response to growing competition, Amazon has constantly sought to outpace its rivals in delivery times. Recognizing the link between swift deliveries and growth, the company has pivoted to a more regionally oriented model, keeping inventory closer to customers.

A glimpse into the new operational setup reveals a fascinating system: products are transported in tote containers to a sortation machine equipped with nimble robotic arms and computer vision. Once sorted, the bins are directed to employees for order picking. Sparrow, another robotic innovation from Amazon, handles the consolidation of the remaining inventory.

This new approach contrasts starkly with the previous one, where there were no sortation machines or Sparrows. Employees had to manually fetch items, sometimes straining to reach high shelves. Now, thanks to Sequoia, items are conveniently presented at waist level.

Amazon’s pursuit mirrors a broader industry trend – the chase for robotics that can emulate human dexterity and speed. Giants like Walmart are also reimagining roles, transitioning from manual tasks to overseeing robotic arms.

Rueben Scriven, a research manager at Interact Analysis, highlights a realization many companies are reaching. To truly harness robotics, warehouse workflows need overhauls. For instance, robotic arms, like those in Amazon’s new setup, find it simpler to recognize items in bins rather than on shelves.

While these advancements sound promising, they come with concerns. Labor advocates caution that Amazon’s relentless pursuit of speed might jeopardize worker safety. They also worry that a surge in robotics might increase the risk of injuries. Historically, Amazon has faced challenges like high employee turnover and repetitive stress injuries in their warehouses. However, with systems like Sequoia, the company is determined to bolster safety.

Tye Brady, the chief technologist at Amazon Robotics, emphasizes that the goal is to eradicate mundane tasks, facilitating a harmonious collaboration between humans and machines. Over the past decade, while Amazon has indeed incorporated several robotic systems, it has simultaneously ramped up hiring human employees.

Moreover, Amazon’s ambitions don’t stop at speedy deliveries. The company has been establishing facilities dedicated to “same-day” deliveries and has ambitious plans for expansion. Sequoia will play a role here too. Additionally, Amazon has re-entered the shipping business, taking on giants like UPS and FedEx, and is on a mission to reduce unnecessary packaging.

Another intriguing addition is the bipedal robot named “Digit,” designed by Agility Robotics. Digit is capable of moving and handling items, and will start its journey by managing empty tote containers.

Amazon’s robotics journey traces back to 2012 when they acquired Kiva Systems for $775 million, a move that integrated mobile robots into their operations. A decade later, in 2022, Amazon launched a $1 billion fund dedicated to logistics and supply chain innovation. Agility Robotics and the versatile Sparrow robot are beneficiaries of this initiative, showcasing Amazon’s unwavering commitment to redefine logistics through technology.

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