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How Amazon launched the warehouse robotics industry

In 2012, the warehouse robotics industry consisted of Kiva Systems, the sole supplier to serve all e-commerce companies. When Amazon devoured Kiva, a wellspring of startups bubbled up in response.

Amazon's purchase of Kiva Systems in 2012 to serve its own order fulfillment needs surely sent shock waves through its many e-commerce competitors. The acquisition left these companies without a source of robotic technologies to supply their own warehouses.

At that time, while other robotics companies were building humanoid robots, Kiva Systems had the field of warehouse robots all to itself.  Kiva had successfully built up a long list of customers, both retailers and third-party e-commerce fulfillment companies. The acquisition left a void, but one that others quickly moved in to fill.

"The entire autonomous robot sector was formed because of that purchase," said Keith Shaw, a robotics industry watcher.

Amazon warehouse robotics

Just to be clear, warehouse robots are not humanoid robots. These are essentially bigger, more rugged, rectangular-shaped robots that resemble Roombas, the autonomous vacuum cleaners built by iRobot, based in Bedford, Mass. And they have one simple, practical function -- similar to the musclebound weightlifter in those health club commercials -- they "lift things up and put them down." Some models can lift 1,000 pounds; others can hoist 3,000 pounds.

Of course, there's more to it than just lifting. The robots use laser triangulation to autonomously and safely navigate through a crowded warehouse without colliding with people or other moving objects, like pallets or other robots. Plugged into Amazon's warehouse management software, they use bar code technology to stow material where it needs to go. In fact, Amazon said that robots help it to store 40% more material in the same amount of space.

Amazon warehouse robots can travel around the warehouse, locate items and carry shelves of products back to a human packer. This eliminates the need for people to walk around vast warehouse floors, hunting for the items needed to fulfill an order. The addition of robotics has reportedly cut Amazon's costs by up to 20% and makes it possible for Amazon to offer its speedy two-day and one-day delivery.

Amazon's move to purchase and make exclusive use of Kiva technology -- now called Amazon Robotics -- gave the company a huge competitive advantage. It certainly validated what was at the time a relatively nascent and niche area within the larger robotics industry. But to Amazon's competitors, the Kiva acquisition laid bare the reality that to compete with Amazon in e-commerce you need robots.

Cue the warehouse robotic competitor startups

As entrepreneurs eyed this new warehouse robotics market, different business models emerged. For example, Quiet Logistics, a third-party provider of e-commerce fulfillment services, was an early adopter of Kiva robots. In 2014, Amazon informed Quiet Logistics that once its agreement expired, it would no longer be able to use Kiva robots. The company's CEO Bruce Welty, and business partner Michael Johnson searched for a robot replacement. Unable to find one, they founded their own company, Locus Robotics, in 2015.

Former Kiva employees also founded 6 River Systems, a maker of self-driving robotic carts, similar to shopping carts, that help workers with picking and sorting functions. In 2019, Shopify acquired 6 River Systems for $450 million, to help the e-commerce software company improve the logistics of its new fulfillment centers.

The market researcher, IDC, has identified numerous other warehouse robotic startups launched in the post-Kiva era, such as Fetch Robotics, Geekplus Technology Co., RG Robotics, Vecna Robotics Inc., Seegrid Corp., Aethon Inc., Omron Robotics and Safety Technologies Inc., and OTTO Motors.

But these warehouse robotics companies all started from scratch and had to play catch-up to Amazon Robotics. They all needed to scramble for venture capital, ramp up engineering teams and figure out how to stand out from their competitors, which is no easy task. "Robotics is hard to scale and not very profitable for a long period of development," said Rian Whitton, a senior analyst at ABI Research.

In the meantime, Amazon continues to advance warehouse robotics technology. "Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to the rollout and operation of mobile robots," Whitton said. "With well over 200,000 mobile AVGs deployed, Amazon's use of mobile autonomous systems is unmatched."

Whitton added that nearly half of all mobile robots in the world operate inside Amazon fulfillment centers.

Amazon showcases its warehouse robotics

After years of secrecy, Amazon pulled back the curtains a bit last year when, for the first time, it opened up its annual re:MARS conference to the public. MARS stands for machine learning, automation, robotics and space.

Shaw, who attended the conference, said Amazon provided a glimpse of how it plans to extend its dominance in the robotics arena in several important ways:

  • Amazon's RoboMaker service uses the company's AWS cloud to give robotics software designers a readily available, cloud-based development platform.
  • It will integrate Amazon's Alexa AI-based voice capabilities so users might activate a robot with voice commands.
  • Amazon's Pegasus Drive Sortation robots will eventually transport individual packages at the company's 'middle-mile' distribution centers, which connect the fulfillments center with last-mile delivery nodes.

Robotics and last-mile delivery

Amazon continues to push the warehouse robotics industry forward. After it bought Dispatch, an urban delivery robot startup, in 2017, Amazon recently unveiled its last-mile delivery robot called Scout. It bought Canvas Technology, known for its vision-based navigation. And in June, Amazon shelled out $1.2 billion for Zoox, a self-driving car company.

"These later acquisitions are about building mobile robots that can navigate autonomously through outdoor locations, warehouses and in Whole Foods stores for applications like floor scrubbing," ABI's Whitton said.

The company also disclosed plans to build a 350,000-square-foot robotics innovation hub in Westborough, Mass. The facility will be used to design, build, program and ship robots all from one location, according to Tye Brady, chief technologist at Amazon Robotics, who spoke publicly at the launch event last January. The facility will open in 2021. 

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