Robots pick up pace in fulfillment race

eCommerce has simply revolutionised shopping. Providing consumers with a hassle-free alternative to the high street or retail park, eCommerce is the ultimate convenience store. For retailers though, it’s a bit more complex. The larger online retailers need to employ armies of workers to get orders out the door. In the U.S., Amazon alone hired 120,000 temporary workers over the holidays in 2016 simply to pick orders. It can be an expensive bottleneck, where no value’s added. It’s also an obvious target for automation.

Amazon already has their own Robotics Division, having bought mobile robotic fulfillment manufacturer Kiva Systems in 2012. With technology gathering pace, they’ve now started hosting an annual robotic picking challenge where robots perform real-world tasks of picking orders and restocking shelves. In the 2015 competition, the best robots were picking at a speed of 30 items per hour - slow compared to humans. However, in 2016, in a much tougher competition, the robots were picking roughly three times faster, at 100 items per hour.

Will we see a similar rate of improvement in the next Amazon picking challenge? If so, this would put the robot picking speed much closer to humans. Even though it’s probably still a few years off before the speed and accuracy of the robots are on par with us, the future’s clear. The future’s automated.