5 billion: orders delivered by Amazon in 2021, i.e. more than 13 million per day. This number should be even more colossal this year, despite the slowdown in online sales that Wall Street did not hesitate to sanction in the third quarter. Even so, the American giant, which plans to lay off around 10,000 employees, remains the world leader in e-commerce. A status that Jeff Bezos’ group acquired thanks to its ability to reduce delivery times even further.
Amazon has no choice but to accelerate its pace of innovation, while major retailers (Walmart in the US, Carrefour in France with Google backing) have accelerated their digital transformation – with relative success. Competition has also increased with start-ups from fast tradefrom who dark stores sprouted like mushrooms in the main cities of the world, guaranteeing deliveries in just 10 minutes.
If Amazon’s headquarters are in Seattle, it is near Boston that the group intends to improve the order processing process. Unsurprisingly, improving means automating, and so the company created a dedicated robotic arm in 2012, building on the $775 million acquisition of specialist Kiva. 10 years later, 520,000 robots have been deployed in warehouses through the Amazon Robotics affiliate. 75% of the group’s customer orders already involve robotics.
BOS27, the robotics innovation lab
These robots are the result of the work of 200 employees based on the BOS27 site. No “tramway” reference here, but a codename designating the 27th site created by Amazon near Boston. Located in rural Westborough (Massachusetts) to accommodate potential expansion, this robotics innovation center has taken over from another location. The latter, located a few kilometers away, was in fact too small to respond positively to Amazon’s ambitions.
In a 32,500 m² warehouse, Amazon develops, tests and produces the robots that will work in its 400 distribution centers around the world. In particular, we see Hercules robots coming off production lines, able to lift shelves full of products and move them smoothly thanks to artificial intelligence (AI).
Sparrow, the most successful robot
But if this system was already effective in conquering 40% of space in Amazon warehouses, the star of the moment is called Sparrow. It is an articulated arm, whose computer vision and AI allow it to detect and pick up products before packaging, using cylindrical tubes, to place them precisely in a box and thus simplify the preparation of orders. The e-merchant is very proud of its new technological jewel, capable of handling millions of products, regardless of their size or shape. The noise generated by this machine is within Amazon’s expectations: very loud!
The Sparrow goes a step further than its predecessors, only capable of moving packages through warehouses. Thus, the Robin robot has been deployed in distribution centers for 18 months, while a more advanced version, called Cardinal, should debut by the end of the year. Currently being tested in Texas, the Sparrow isn’t expected to hit warehouses until 2024.
In addition to Sparrow, Amazon relies on Proteus for greater fluidity in its distribution centers. It is the group’s first robot capable of moving among employees, unlike other models that navigate in an exclusive area without human beings to avoid accidents. On the day of our visit to Amazon’s logistics innovation center near Boston, the Proteus, which lifts and moves carts full of merchandise, seemed a little too shy to show the extent of its potential. Regardless, this first autonomous mobile robot opens new horizons for the company, with greater interaction between machines and employees.
1 million jobs created since 2012
The stakes are high for the group, as nearly half of the work accidents recorded in the United States in 2021 occurred at its logistics centers. However, Amazon has repeatedly reminded us that its top priority is the safety of its employees. As for criticisms of job-destroying robotization, the US giant dismisses them, assuring that the introduction of robotics in its facilities has generated more than a million jobs since 2012.
At the same time, 700 new job categories were created in the company to adapt to the technological evolution of machines. “Robotics has a remarkable effect on employment, says Tye Brady, chief technologist at Amazon Robotics. The idea is to automate repetitive, low-value tasks so that employees can focus on more interesting and creative tasks. Thus, employees become more collaborative and productive, which generates more growth, promotes the emergence of innovations and, consequently, contributes to the creation of new careers. The machine and the human work together in the same direction. Machines exist to help humans, not to take advantage of them. The human brain is at the heart of our system.”
A new drone to get Prime Air off the ground
To reach more customers and deliver their orders faster and faster, Amazon also wants to reach higher. This is the role assigned to its Prime Air branch, led by David Carbon. “To deliver a wide variety of items in less than an hour, and sometimes up to 30 minutes, at scale, drones are the best option.he believes. It’s not that difficult to deliver a package by air.”
However, there is no lack of obstacles, between an increasingly saturated airspace, very strict regulations or even capricious weather. What’s more, a Bloomberg investigation revealed last April that Prime Air’s development is far from a long smooth river, despite the $2 billion spent since 2013 on the project. Prime Air hopes to take off once and for all with a new drone model, the MK30, which was presented to the press on November 10 at BOS27. Smaller and lighter than the previous version (MK27-2), it is capable of flying in light rain.
More resistant to weather hazards, the MK30 is also able to land in smaller gardens, thus allowing Amazon to reach more customers. However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the US’s policeman in the sky, is watching and full-scale drone deliveries are not yet a reality. It’s still time to test Amazon and its competitors.
This does not prevent the giant from feeding strong ambitions with Prime Air. Thus, it set the goal of delivering 500 million packages by drone every year by the end of the decade, being able to operate in highly populated areas such as Boston, Atlanta and Seattle. The MK30 should help achieve that goal, but the machine won’t enter service until 2024. Meanwhile, Prime Air plans first deliveries with the MK27-2 to Lockeford (California) and College Station (Texas) by the end of 2022.
An increasingly connected last mile to make a difference
The future of Amazon, therefore, partly passes through the sky, but the group led by Andy Jassy does not forget the segment where it shines: the last mile on dry land. To be effective on this strategic e-commerce front, the company relies on a team of data developers, scientists and engineers to enrich a navigation system capable of automatically generating over 148,000 routes. During the holiday season, that number will increase to 225,000.
To support its couriers, Amazon launched this year Fleet Edge, a device that collects images of the streets traveled, later crossed with GPS data to draw more complete maps, namely with the addition of traffic signs or any other information to improve delivery routes. Indeed, a better knowledge of the environment makes it possible to choose the most suitable means of transport so that the trip is as quick as possible.
Among the means of transport used, Amazon gives a lot of prominence to the electric vans of the American neoconstructor Rivian. The e-merchant currently has 1,000 of them delivering to around 100 cities, but plans to grow to have a fleet of 100,000 vehicles by 2030.
In addition to the green argument, Rivian’s electric vans are an opportunity for Amazon to have a complete logistics network, which tends to increasingly disentangle itself from UPS and FedEx. These vehicles also allow the group to boast its innovation capabilities to its distributors. Indeed, Rivian vans offer a very refined living space with two screens: one for viewing the route and another for using the on-board computer. From there to conjuring true “Delivery Teslas,” there’s only one step Amazon seems ready to take.
In a video shown to the press at BOS27, a delivery woman assured that she had the impression of “driving into the future”to the point of “feel as if [elle était] on Star Trek”🇧🇷 An obviously exaggerated comparison, but one that reinforces the intentions of the online commerce juggernaut. It is not Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon who seeks to approach the stars with Blue Origin, who will say otherwise.