Meet the robots inside Amazon’s fulfillment centers

Author: CBS NEWS
Bert uses AI and LIDAR to stay on track, without a track. CBS NEWS

Last year, we spent $386 billion on stuff from Amazon – that’s half of all our online spending. And the bigger Amazon gets, the more unwelcome attention it gets for its workplace conditions, especially from employees like Jennifer Bates, who testified before a Senate committee:

“My workday feels like a nine-hour intense workout, every day, and they track our every move,” she said.

Now, Amazon points out that its warehouse workers make over twice the national minimum wage, and get full medical benefits and a company-matched 401(k) plan.

But this headline must have really hurt: According to the government, Amazon workers were seriously injured about twice as often last year as employees in other warehouses.

“Safety is our top priority with our employees,” said Kevin Keck, Amazon’s director of advanced technology. “So, in 2020 we invested over a billion dollars into safety and programs and processes around movement and ergonomics. This year we are doing an additional $300 million investment.”

Keck’s team invited “Sunday Morning” correspondent David Pogue to spend a day in the company’s secret technology facility near Seattle. Clearly, Amazon wants to demonstrate that it’s working on the safety problem.

“I understand that not a lot of TV crews have come through here?” asked Pogue.

“Yeah, none,” Keck said.

“None! So, why is it in your interest to show the public what you’re working on?”

“Because people can see that we are truly innovating and investing in technology to help our employees and their safety and comfort,” he replied.

For starters, how are the injuries happening in the first place? “About 40% of our injuries are musculoskeletal – sprains and strains and things that come from repetitive motion,” said Maeghan Hudon, this facility’s product-development director. To study exactly how workers move, her team straps 17 orange transmitters onto employees of various shapes and sizes.

Pogue tried on the motion-capture devices as well, with his data displayed on screen.

“You see your movements? The one on the right is your right shoulder and the one on the left is how your back is moving,” Hudon said. “So, when you bend, when you twist, when you move side-to-side, it’s understanding how you’re moving.”

This experiment has already revealed one way that Amazon can reduce injuries, just by adjusting the handle positions on the crates, known as totes, that move Amazon orders around the warehouses, to prevent you from lifting over your head.

“You don’t want people lifting?” asked Pogue.

“No, it’s actually much safer to keep the weight below your shoulders,” Hudon replied.

Pogue then tried a tote with a different handle positioning. “Wouldn’t this one, with these holes, be more convenient because I don’t have to reach all the way across?”

“Actually, no,” Hudon said. “The sensor on your hand is telling us that your left wrist has rotated much farther than what is safe for any amount of time.”

“It’s ’cause it’s underhanded instead of overhanded?”

“That’s right.”

Robots play a huge role in Amazon’s warehouses (which it calls fulfillment centers). Low-rider robots bring stacks of bins over to employees, who fish out what you’ve ordered and send it off to be packaged.

But the human work involves a lot of reaching up and bending down, which contributes to repetitive-motion injuries.

Amazon’s solution: a new robot, known as Ernie. (Amazon’s new robots are named for Sesame Street characters.) The robot uses its arms to select a tote and pull it off the shelf, and then the conveyance brings that directly to Amazon worker Theresa. “Theresa is no longer having to step up and reach into a bin to get product or bend down and pull product out,” Hudon said.

Pogue asked, “What is it that Theresa needs to do that a robot couldn’t do?”

“Theresa has to discern what product to pick. The monitor tells her what she’s looking for, but that container could be full of multiple kinds of product.”

Now, in most warehouses, safety cages separate robots from people. But robotics director Kevin Keck showed Pogue some robot prototypes that can share the same space with people.

One such autonomous guided cart, or AGC, developed to help with the process of moving empty totes is named Kermit, which moves while following a line on the floor.

Keck said, “So, let’s test the safety system. I’ll let you do the honors of setting the cone out on Kermit’s path.”

“Good luck with that, Kermit!” laughed Pogue, who placed the obstacle before the ongoing robot – which stopped.

Once the object is removed, Kemit sees that the path is clear, and off he goes. Crisis averted!

For heavier cargo, Amazon will soon unleash a more substantial self-driving robot, called Scooter.

Keck said, “If you imagine going from an airplane to a trailer on the other side of a building, an employee would then push that cart across. We thought, ‘Hey, we can automate that.'”

But perhaps Keck’s proudest prototype is this little guy: Bert. “This is pretty early technology. You’re the first one to see it, as a matter of fact,” Keck said.  “Bert will carry packages, totes. If an employee needed to take something to the other side of the building, they would say, ‘I need a Bert,’ and a Bert would come over and take it to where it needs to go.”

Bert doesn’t need lines on the floor; it uses artificial intelligence and LIDAR (laser pulses) to see the world around it.

Acting as somebody on his phone not paying attention, Pogue walked directly in front of an oncoming Bert, which stopped.

Pogue then waved it on its way. “Hey, nice job! Your thing works!”

“It’s pretty great tech!” Keck laughed.

In fact, Amazon says that robots like Bert and Ernie are the most advanced warehouse robots in the world, but not because they get the job done faster. “They’re slower than people,” Keck said. “But they’re a lot safer. So, we think that’s a good trade-off.”

Now, to a critic, all of these robots in the room might seem to ignore the elephant in the room – that Amazon’s injury rate is high not because it doesn’t have enough robots, but because the company sets too demanding a pace for its workers.

Amazon told “Sunday Morning”: “We are committed to giving employees the resources they need to be successful, creating time for regular breaks and a comfortable pace, and working directly with anyone who needs additional support to meet their goals.”

Pogue said, “So far, what I’ve seen here today are robots saving people from doing more stuff. And is the end goal of that to get rid of the people entirely?”

“No,” said Keck. “We approach automation and robotics around working together with people and helping people and benefiting them. Since 2012, when we started first deploying robotics broadly here at Amazon, we’ve put in 350,000 robots. In that same time, we have over a million jobs that we’ve created, and we’re still hiring.”

Keck said that all the investments in warehouse safety are beginning to pay off: “We did see, in 2020, in the category of musculoskeletal disorders, through programs that we had launched, that we had reduced by 32%, which is pretty incredible.”

Amazon’s goal, by 2025, is to cut recordable injuries by 50%.

“Wow, and you’re putting that out there, so we can come back in a few years and see how you did?” asked Pogue.

“Yeah. I hope all the technology I showed you here today helps contribute to that success.”

“So, June 1, 2025, this spot?”

“Let’s do it!”

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