Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see inside one of commerce giant Amazon’s smart warehouses? After opening last year, we took a look inside their fulfillment center in Swindon, where robots help deliver orders to your doorstep.
At 550,000 square feet, the size of nearly seven football fields. Swindon Amazon uses state-of-the-art robots to ensure your package is delivered on time. The £400million Symmetry Park fulfillment center created 1,300 jobs when it opened in December 2021, making it their second largest fulfillment center in the UK.
The tech multinational handles billions of packages a year worldwide, so its warehouses need to be as efficient as possible to keep up with demand. And now they’re using the power of robots to perform some of their most time-consuming tasks.
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Robotics can be found on floors 1, 2 and 3 of the Swindon warehouse. With the ground floor mainly receiving goods, packaging and other processes, robots occupy more than 75% of the site.
I was invited inside the robotics floor, where robots transport shelves to workers, delivering the items they need. They are programmed to move simultaneously through the warehouse without bumping into each other or the technicians tending to them. In Swindon, there are an incredible 6,000 robots and 60,000 shelves, called pods.
Senior Technician Zo Gehlan took me to the robot floor to show me exactly how they work. First, before being allowed to enter the perimeter, I had to undergo a security briefing, as well as being fitted with a vest that would allow robots to sense where I was, ensuring that I ‘to avoid.
You may have heard the headlines of Amazon workers walking up to 12 miles a day searching pods for the right items. But now their modern distribution centers, like Swindon, are full of these unassuming little robots that pick up pods and deliver them to a human picker at a workstation.
Hundreds of thousands of articles leave the site every day – millions a week. And at any given time, millions of items are stored on these robotic floors. Depending on the size of the item, up to 1,000 can be stored in a single capsule.
Around the edge of the floor were 270 stations, where the huge pods delivered items to employees, who worked safely behind a fence away from robots. However, we were going where the action is, inside the robot area.
It is usually only technicians who can enter this area, for safety reasons, but also to ensure that the robots can be as productive as possible. Zo explained that this is because as soon as someone enters the perimeter, the robots automatically reduce the speed at which they work, thanks to sensors that detect vests worn inside.
“During peak hours we try to avoid coming on the ground too much. In October and November, as Christmas approaches, there are a lot more people, during these times we try to reduce the amount that we watch the ground because that obviously slows down the workouts,” she explained.
As soon as our vests were activated, I could see the robots drastically reduce the speed at which they were working. I figured out that, in simple terms, robots use something like an air traffic control network that coordinates where they go and what product to bring each picker.
On the ground, the robots read QR codes embedded underneath, with sensors to help the robots slow down or avoid obstacles in their path, either other robots or today it was me too.
It was a surreal experience to approach the robots and see their yellow light flashing, signaling that they were going to have to take a detour, or if I was very close, stop completely in their tracks. I have to say being inside wasn’t as scary as I expected. Outside the perimeter, I had seen the robots moving at about 3 times the speed they had once inside.
I noticed that in some places on the floor there were products that had fallen to the ground and had to be avoided by the robots. Zo explained that there are “amnesty monitors or AFM, they go around picking up anything that’s on the floor.”
For the purposes of my visit, Zo had programmed the software so that the center of the floor was completely clear of pods and robots, so I could see the robots in action. It’s something they would do if they needed space to fix a problem or do maintenance and cleaning.
While traveling, a robot crossed the route we had planned to take: “If that happens, you just wait and wait for him to pass. Or if he stops in your way, you can just leave him a little space and it will move and continue,” she explained.
The robots work around the clock with a short break “for two hours they have time to do nothing,” Zo said. The time I had visited was an employee break, so the robots weren’t as busy as usual, “there would be a lot more movement, a lot more activity”.
Talking to Zo, I could tell there was a safety spotlight. As soon as I approached even 10 meters from the robots, they immediately turned on their sensors and stopped. Zo showed me outside the perimeter by putting her hand through the perimeter that an alarm would go off and the robots would immediately stop whatever they were doing.
Next time I order Prime delivery, I don’t think I can forget about the little robots that help me make sure my order is delivered on time.
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