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Amazing fulfillment robots coming to Amazon

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Core information:

Nov 26, 2012: How Amazon’s Largest Distribution Center Works tells us at [00:59] of the video that “Amazon brings in 50 000 seasonal workers here to work in a fulfillment center such as this.”

Cory Johnson looks at an Amazon.com distribution center. He speaks on Bloomberg Television’s “In The Loop.” (Source: Bloomberg)

204 Cyber Monday Items Shipped Per Second Last Year

Nov. 26 (Bloomberg) — Today’s “BWest Byte” is 204, for the number of items per second that Amazon shipped during Cyber Monday last year. Cory Johnson reports on Bloomberg Television’s “Bloomberg West.” (Source: Bloomberg)

I got quite impressed by the size of Amazon operations as shown on these Bloomberg videos yesterday. I got also interested more deeply in the technology which is behind of all this, and by searching the relevant YouTube videos, and then relevant articles on the web, I found even more interesting stuff not only about the current level of technology but also the near time future of it.

This is the most important continuation of the whole Amazon story which was excellently presented in the following 25 minutes of video summarizing Jeff Bezos’ successes up to May 2011:

Jeff Bezos Revealed: Game Changers Bloomberg TV
(you can access this video only by clicking on this link, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

If you will read then my Amazon related trend tracking posts on this blog as well you will be pretty up to date on the whole Amazon story.

Now, to understand the importance of the near time future for Amazon fulfillment read first:
Amazon.com to Acquire Kiva Systems, Inc. [Amazon press release, March 19, 2012]

Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) today announced that it has reached an agreement to acquire Kiva Systems, Inc., a leading innovator of material handling technology.

“Amazon has long used automation in its fulfillment centers, and Kiva’s technology is another way to improve productivity by bringing the products directly to employees to pick, pack and stow,” said Dave Clark, vice president, global customer fulfillment, Amazon.com. “Kiva shares our passion for invention, and we look forward to supporting their continued growth.”

“For the past ten years, the Kiva team has been focused on creating innovative material handling technologies,” said Mick Mountz, CEO and founder of Kiva Systems. “I’m delighted that Amazon is supporting our growth so that we can provide even more valuable solutions in the coming years.”

Following the acquisition, Kiva Systems’ headquarters will remain in North Reading, Massachusetts.

Under the terms of the agreement, which has been approved by Kiva’s stockholders, Amazon will acquire all of the outstanding shares of Kiva for approximately $775 million in cash, as adjusted for the assumption of options and other items. Subject to various closing conditions, the acquisition is expected to close in the second quarter of 2012.

About Kiva Systems

Kiva Systems, Inc. uses material handling technology and sophisticated control software to simplify operations, reduce costs and increase flexibility. Kiva solutions enable extremely fast cycle times, from receiving to order picking to shipping all in a single solution. The result is a building that is quick and low-cost to set up, inexpensive to operate, and easy to change. For more information about Kiva Systems and its solutions, please visit www.kivasystems.com.

More information:
Amazon Acquires Kiva Systems in Second-Biggest Takeover [Bloomberg, March 20, 2012]
Amazon buys warehouse robotics start-up Kiva Systems for $775 million [Boston Globe, March 19, 2012]
Amazon Acquires Kiva Systems for $775 Million [IEEE Spectrum, March 22, 2012]
Why Kiva Is Worth $775 Million to Amazon [IEEE Spectrum, March 22, 2012]
The New Amazon Distribution Model [by Steve Banker on Logistics Viewpoints, Aug 6, 2012]

Recently, Kiva Systems told its existing clients how its acquisition by Amazon would affect them. But the news also revealed something about Amazon’s distribution strategy.

So here is the news: Kiva will not be selling any new systems to new customers for the next one and a half to two years. Instead, Amazon will be filling its new one million square foot distribution centers (DCs) with Kiva robots. In its second quarter financial statement, Amazon said that it had opened 6 DCs this year, with 12 more scheduled for the remainder of 2012 (17 were built last year).

I wrote a strategic report in 2009 titled “Warehouse 2025” (available to ARC clients only) that looked at the economics of the new generation of distribution robots.

Amazon appears to practice mainly pick-to-cart. Each cart has multiple totes. Its warehouses have mezzanine levels; workers often have to push their carts onto a lift to change levels. Once a tote has been completely picked, it is placed on a conveyor and transported to pack stations. Amazon’s labor goals are roughly 160 picks per hour.

In contrast, Kiva Systems leads to higher productivity per worker. Workers work at combination pick/pack stations and the Kiva bots deliver the inventory to them to pick. The pick rate will depend on what is picked — if it is small items picked in multiple quantities, you might go as high as 1,500 items per hour; apparel is closer to 200 items per hour. In my report, I used 600 line items per hour as an average for Kiva empowered workers.

So what would this mean in terms of workers? My initial estimate was that Amazon would employ 45 percent fewer workers per DC. But one of the contacts I interviewed for my strategic report told me that number was too high; his warehouse employs 30-40 percent fewer people by using Kiva.

If you conduct a Google search on “Amazon distribution center,” you come across announcements over the past year for DCs in Virginia, New Jersey, and South Carolina. According to these articles, warehouses costing roughly $50-65 million will employ 1,500 to 2,000 workers.

But then I came across an article about a new Indiana DC. This DC is costing $150 million and the company is only promising 1,000 new workers. Could this be one of the new warehouses that will be using Kiva? The employment numbers seem to add up. This DC will employ at least one third fewer workers.

The total cost of the new Indiana warehouse also seems roughly right. Kiva is sold as a system – robots plus their warehouse control system software. But if you take the total cost of the system and divide it by the number of robots, I estimate that the cost per robot is about $20,000-$30,000. There will be about 6 to 9 robots serving each station. With a two shift operation, and the understanding that the great majority of workers will now work pack stations, you can see how the Kiva robots would add $40 million to the cost of the new DC even if Amazon buys the robots for half of the purchase price of the general market.

Let’s tackle that last assumption, that Amazon can buy the robots for half price. Part of that is based on the fact that Kiva Systems sells premium-priced, high-margin product, which Amazon will now buy at cost. But I also see falling unit costs based on a huge increase in production volume. Word on the street is that Kiva did about $100 million in revenues last year. Based on my back of the envelope calculation, one of Amazon’s new DCs will require more than 80 percent of Kiva’s total production from all of last year. If even half of the unbuilt DCs scheduled to come online this year use Kiva robots, we are looking at 5X production ramp.

Again, doing a little rough math, and depending on what you think a fully loaded warehouse worker costs and exactly how many workers become unnecessary, Kiva warehouses could save Amazon more than $20-35 million in wages and benefits per warehouse per year. If it implements Kiva at 6 DCs this year, and 20 more over the following two years, the company will get its payback for the Kiva investment.

There are some other advantages. Without buying Kiva and ramping production volumes, Amazon could never implement Kiva across its network of new DCs. Further, the company’s backlog prevents other e-fulfillment competitors (that are not Kiva’s existing clients) from copying what it is doing for at least a year and a half.

Finally, as Adrian Gonzalez pointed out in a recent posting, Amazon appears to be on a quest for same day deliveries. Kiva robots provide a blend of automation and flexibility that traditional forms of heavy automation cannot match.

What at first glance looked like an absurdly high acquisition price for Kiva Systems becomes completely rational. But the success of this investment will depend on how quickly and successfully Amazon can ramp the production.

And now you can share with me my experience of technology exploration by watching the videos embedded below:

2008: Warehouse Robots at Work

IEEE spectrum (http://spectrum.ieee.org) takes you inside Kiva Systems’ robotic warehouse, where orange robots make inventory move instead of workers. Over time the system becomes increasingly efficient, with the robots learning from the wisdom of the crowd. To read more about Kiva Systems and how their robots work, check out the article at http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/jul08/6380.

2011: A Day in the Life of a Kiva Robot

Complete Premium video at: http://fora.tv/conference/wired_business_conference_2011 Kiva Systems founder and CEO Mick Mountz narrates a play-by-play video of how Kiva robots automate a warehouse environment. —– How Robots Think: Why Artificial Intelligence Is Nothing Like the Human Mind Mick Mountz, Founder & CEO, Kiva Systems in conversation with Jason Tanz Mick Mountz is founder and CEO of Kiva Systems. Mountz founded Kiva Systems in 2003, after experiencing the inadequacy of existing material-handling technologies for ecommerce at the grocery delivery startup Webvan. Kiva’s integrated order-fulfillment solution employs hundreds of mobile robots and distributed intelligence to enable faster, more flexible ecommerce distribution centers for companies like The Gap, Saks Fifth Avenue, Diapers.com, Staples, Walgreens, and Crate and Barrel. Under Mountz’s leadership, Kiva was ranked sixth on the 2009 Inc. 500 list of the fastest growing private companies in the US. Before joining Webvan, Mountz spent three years as a product manager at Apple Computer, where he helped move new technologies like FireWire, DVD, Fast Ethernet, and 3D graphics acceleration into the standard desktop platform. He began his career as a mechanical and manufacturing engineer at Motorola. In 2008, Mountz received an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the New England region. He holds twelve U.S. technology patents.

And Amazon?
2011: Inside the Amazon Warehouse for Christmas

We go behind the scenes at the Amazon distribution centre to find out how the likes of the Amazon Kindle Fire make it to your front door.

2012: Amazon Adds That Robotic Touch

Amazon buys Kiva Systems, maker of robots for warehouses. Spencer Ante has details on Digits.

Imagine how much Amazon will be transformed as the result of this acquisition as the current process is: Fulfillment by Amazon Tour

Take a look inside one of Amazon’s world-class fulfillment centers and see Fulfillment by Amazon in action.

and Amazon’s operation is huge as told in 2009 by Mark A. Onetto, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Operations and Customer Service, Amazon.com

Mark A. Onetto, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Operations, Amazon.com, Inc. speaks in the Abbott Center Auditorium as part of Darden’s Leadership Speaker Series. Mr. Onetto leads the supply chain, warehousing, transportation and customer support operations of the largest e-retailer in the world.

But the current operation needs a lot of people:
2012: Inside Amazon Fulfillment

Take a look inside an Amazon Fulfillment warehouse! Learn about available opportunities in Fulfillment at http://www.AmazonFulfillmentCareers.com.

a lot of people, look at the employees’ aspect in:
2012: Make History with Amazon SDF 4, 6, 7!

See what it’s like to work in Amazon SDF 4, 6, & 7! Want to join the team? You can apply now for seasonal opportunities at kellyhero.com.

Compare this to the Kiva Systems Warehouse Automation at Quiet Logistics

2010: Overview of Quiet Logistics warehouse narrated by Al Dekin, Senior Vice President, Quiet Logistics & Amy Villeneuve, President & COO, Kiva Systems.

More information:
Kiva Universal playlist
Kiva Systems YouTube Channel

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