Ever since Amazon acquired Kiva Systems in 2012 and took the company off the market to use the robots in its own fulfillment centers, the sector has exploded and startups have flourished, a few of them created by former Kiva executives.
The Kiva bots and their autonomous offspring are handy for shuttling product quickly around a large facility, bringing them to associates for packing and shipping. Now comes a report from The Information that Amazon is developing robotic picking arms, the domain of companies like Righthand Robotics, JDA and Kindred Systems, that could one day replace fulfillment workers.
According to the report Amazon is experimenting with robotic arms that can visually identify items on a conveyor, pick them up using a compressed air vacuum gripper and place them on a table or shelf.
Robotic picking for ecommerce presents a thorny engineering challenge, given the wide variety of sizes and shapes of products and the difficulty of replicating the complex functioning of the human hand. But where there is some degree of uniformity, or at least not as many oddly-shaped or rounded objects, this technology can be a real boon. Companies like Hudson’s Bay Co. have found great success with a system from Righthand, for example.
For the record Amazon is saying “the current state of the art” is not capable of handling the wide diversity of product stored in its hundreds of facilities, according to an engineer at Amazon Robotics. The company also touts its high rate of hiring to counter the worker replacement narrative.
But given the accelerated pace of advancement in the technology – including work at MIT, Amazon’s own annual competition and the recent World Robot Summit in Tokyo – it’s easy to envision a day not far off where the robotic picking challenge is overcome.