For more than 50 years, “Sesame Street” has taught children educational basics and important social skills to help them navigate the world. Now, two Sesame Street characters are navigating Amazon warehouses, making facilities better and safer. And just like on “Sesame Street,” Amazon envisions a future of harmony between all workers, whether human or robotic.
The e-commerce (cookie) monster is testing out a new workstation, named Ernie for the practical joker with a soft spot for bubble baths. The robot is programmed to take totes off shelves, then use a robotic arm to deliver them to employees. Amazon reports that about 40% of work-related injuries are musculoskeletal disorders, including sprains and strains caused by repetitive motion. Ernie could have a sizeable ergonomic impact by reducing the need to reach up or bend down when retrieving items.
As part of Ernie’s testing, Amazon robotics and advanced technology team members are gathering both quantitative data and qualitative feedback from employees. “Being able to innovate with robotics for our employees is something that gives me an extra kick of motivation each day,” says Kevin Keck, Amazon worldwide director of advanced technology. “The innovation with a robot like Ernie is interesting because, while it doesn’t make the process go any faster … it can make our facilities safer.”
Last month, Amazon launched its WorkingWell program and announced a goal to cut recordable incident rates in half by 2025. The initiative is part of the company’s $300 million investment in safety projects and combines physical and mental activities, wellness exercises, and healthy eating support. In pilot tests from 2019 to 2020, the program helped decrease injuries by about a third.
Of course, with Ernie around, Amazon employees might want to keep a close eye on any totes filled with rubber duckies.
Appropriately, Bert is an autonomous mobile robot (AMR) also in testing at Amazon. AMRs do not need to be confined to a specific area or follow a track. Ideally, an employee could just summon Bert to carry items, and he’d get to work. Amazon researchers hope that Bert eventually will be able to carry very heavy loads and multiple packages while avoiding the risk of colliding with people or objects, stationary or moving. This would surely please the organized, serious Bert of “Sesame Street.”
Amazon is also testing two autonomously guided carts, named for fellow Muppets Scooter and Kermit. Scooter pulls carts containing empty totes and packages; Kermit is programmed to move empty totes back to the start of an operations line while following a magnetic tape path that tells it when to speed up, slow down or modify its course.
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