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OM in the News: Amazon Adds That Robotic Touch

March 25, 2012

“In the battle between man and machine, the robots  just scored a victory in the world of e-commerce,” writes The Wall Street Journal (March 20, 2012). Why? Because Amazon this week bought Kiva Systems, which makes squat orange robots used in shipping centers,  for $775 million. Although Amazon has used some automation in its fulfillment centers in the past, it depended heavily on people, hiring thousands during the peak holiday seasons to cruise through gigantic warehouses to pick items from shelves.

With Kiva, Amazon is looking for a more automated approach. The robots, which we have blogged about earlier, are already used at Zappos.com and Diapers.com, two websites that Amazon acquired. Rather than a worker walking to the shelves, Kiva’s robots bring the product shelves to a stationary warehouse worker. The robots  locate the items in a customer’s order, move the products around the warehouse, and help get packed boxes to the shipping dock. This improves productivity by bringing the products directly to employees to pick, pack, and stow.

Kiva claims that a packer working with its robots can fulfill 3-4 times as many orders per hour, but Amazon, with over 56,000 employees, says it won’t eliminate jobs. The firm now has a total of 69 fulfillment centers (with 19 new ones added last year alone).

The Journal article is accompanied by a short video of the robots in action.

Discussion questions:

1.Compare the old and new Amazon picking  systems. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

2.Why did Amazon buy Kiva?

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