Amazon has received a U.S. patent for a new kind of robot capable of packing orders to prepare them for shipment, according to NBC News.
The patent, which Amazon first filed for in late 2014, describes how “robotic arms may be utilized to grasp inventory items within an inventory system. Information about an inventory item to be grasped can be detected and used to determine a grasping strategy in conjunction with information from a database. Instructions for grasping an inventory item can be generated based on the detected information and the database.”
If deployed in Amazon distribution warehouses, this type of package robot would join robots already in use in those environments that streamline functions such as find and retrieving items as customer orders come in for them. Amazon now has at least 45,000 robots working in its supply chain alongside human employees.
Considering how aggressively Amazon has invested in robotics, and how long ago it started integrating robotic systems into fulfillment, we're surprised we haven't heard more about the company locking up various robotics patents. After all, it has worked up several drone delivery patents, already, and that's a sector that is barely just emerging.
In any case, those 45,000 robots Amazon already has put to work (and whose ranks are growing pretty fast) still work alongside well over 200,000 human employees in Amazon distribution centers. Perhaps for that reason, no one has seemed especially concerned about the speed with which the robots are taking over jobs at Amazon that previously done by humans, even amid broader predictions of how quickly robots replacing humans in the workforce. (Although, Amazon also has kept those concerns at bay with its recent commitment to hire 100,000 employees across several states.)
Still, the robot Amazon just earned a patent for would seem to extend its robotic workforce into yet another phase of the supply chain. It also would represent a significant step to entrust robots with the careful handling of products in the final steps before they are shipped the customers.
If you don't think this is a big deal, consider what robots do in fulfillment and retail now: They often are used in somewhat hidden phases of the supply chain, doing things like retrieving inventory that humans handle before it gets shipped. Even a customer-facing retail robot, like Lowe's LoweBot, usually is aimed at somewhat low-stakes interactions — just helping people navigate stores and find products, and not necessarily relied upon to make or close sales. Allowing a robot to be the last one that touches a product before the customer opens up the box could actually be the gateway for robots to do a whole lot more in retail and fulfillment.