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Amazon expands robotic fulfillment network

Amazon opens a new next-gen fulfillment center in Detroit (Photo: Business Wire).

Amazon is bringing its state-of-the-art supply chain operation to Michigan.

The e-tail giant is opening a new robotics fulfillment center in Detroit. The 823,000-square-foot facility expands Amazon’s operations and transportation network in Michigan, supporting the 10 fulfillment and sortation centers and 13 delivery stations.

More than 1,200 employees will work with innovative technology at the center to assist in picking, packing and shipping smaller customer items such as books, electronics, and toys. Amazon has a total of more than 21,000 full- and part-time employees in Michigan.

“We are thrilled to officially open our new Amazon robotics fulfillment center here in Detroit so we can continue to deliver for our customers in Michigan and beyond,” said Paola Lopez, Detroit Fulfillment Center assistant GM. “Not only are we bringing great jobs with comprehensive benefits to local residents, but we are also aiming to be a strong community partner by supporting organizations in the Detroit area. It’s an honor to lead Amazon’s first operations site in Detroit and help build career pathways for our employees in a safe, engaging, and fun workplace.”

organizing the U.S. fulfillment network

Until recently, Amazon operated one national U.S. fulfillment network that distributed inventory from fulfillment centers spread across the entire country. If a local fulfillment center didn’t have the product a customer ordered, Amazon would ship it from other parts of the country, costing more and increasing delivery times.

As Amazon’s fulfillment network expanded to hundreds of additional nodes over the last few years, distributing inventory across more locations and connecting the central fulfillment center to it delivery station nodes became more challenging.

In 2022, Amazon started moving from a national fulfillment network to a regionalized network model. This included upgrading placement and logistics software, processes, and physical operations to create eight interconnected regions in smaller geographic areas.

Each of these regions can operate in a self-sufficient way, while still being able to ship nationally when necessary. Amazon is also continuing to develop advanced machine learning algorithms to better predict what customers in various parts of the country will need, so that it has the right inventory in the right regions at the right time.

Amazon automates the supply chain

Amazon has already been employing more than a dozen types of robotic systems in its supply chain facilities around the world, including sort centers and air hubs. In June 2022, Amazon announced “Proteus,” its first fully autonomous mobile robot. Proteus moves autonomously through Amazon’s fulfillment and sort facilities using advanced safety, perception, and navigation technology developed by Amazon.

Amazon also introduced Cardinal, a robotic lifting arm that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision to efficiently select one package out of a pile of packages, lift it, read the label, and precisely place it in a cart.

In addition, to reduce the need for employees to reach up, bend down, or climb ladders when retrieving items, the company is developing a robotic Containerized Storage System designed to deliver products to employees in a more ergonomic manner. The solution determines which pod has the container with the needed product, where that container is located in the pod, how to grab and pull the container to the employee, and how to pick it up once the employee has retrieved the product.

More recently, the retailer acquired Belgium-based Cloostermans, which designs and manufactures mechatronics solutions, robotic technology that Amazon will use to help move and stack heavy palettes and totes, or package products together for customer delivery. The company is also testing next-generation robots that use artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision to roam freely throughout fulfillment centers; and is  rolling out “Sparrow,” an intelligent robotic system that can detect, select, and handle individual products in its inventory.

In other efforts to streamline fulfillment, Amazon is s researching how to automate inventory identification using multimodal identification, or MMID, which would eliminate the need for barcodes in its supply chain. 

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