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Robotic Arms Restoring Safety, Saving Lives in Workplace Accidents

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According to ILO estimates, 2.3 million women and men succumb to work-related accidents or diseases every year around the world, resulting in 6000 deaths every day. There are 340 million occupational accidents and 160 million victims of work-related illness. The updates to these estimates are carried out at intervals, and they indicate an increase in accidents and ill health.

Due to many industries belonging to manufacturing, warehousing, transportation, logistics, and similar sectors, many aspects of work that risk life and make workplace safety a priority among businesses. The coronavirus added more to the woe since these sectors involve a lot of physical contact in managing products or operating machines. Many organizations, mostly the ones that involved more manual work, faced a tough start helping their manpower to abide by the rules of the virus while handling tasks.

Now, robots and other automations are safeguarding the human workforce by lending a hand in tasks termed as risky or hazardous. This might appear as one of the ways robots appear to be taking over mankind, but it’s not. At least for now. There isn’t any fear of losing a limb, being infected by a disease, or even risking life in handling heavy objects, hazardous machines, or chemicals since they can only cause such minimal harm to those arms of steel.

Not only are robots almost flawless in managing risky tasks, but they are fast and smart while exceeding productivity expectations. One of the companies deploying robots on the job for about a decade is Amazon. It’s been improving its productivity in the supply chain with the help of robots. Let’s take a look at its journey for starters.

Kiva Made the Big Bet
Amazon already had some automation in its fulfillment centers, but it was the Kiva acquisition that fetched a big bet for the e-commerce giant as an innovative role. On one end, this helped it meet customers’ demands while transforming its business. On the other hand, due to the work speed of the robots, the productivity expectations of the workers grew. According to Meili Robots’ report, between 2016 and 2019, the average injury rate grew above 50 percent in Amazon’s robotic warehouse.

In 2019, that percentage will increase to 74 percent due to issues such as excessive repetition. To reduce the statistics, the federal agency recommended job rotation along with taking extra breaks.

Speculations arose in number, calling out the e-commerce giant for replacing its human workforce with robots.

In the words of Amazon, “Feedback from employees led us to create Amazon Robotics Identification (AR ID), an AI-powered scanning capability with innovative computer vision and machine learning technology to enable easier scanning of packages in our facilities. Currently, all packages in our facilities are scanned at each destination on their journey. In fulfillment centers, this scanning is currently manual—an item arrives at a workstation, the package is picked from a bin by an employee, and using a hand scanner, the employee finds the bar code and hand-scans the item”.

However, time told a different story. Why? Since it acquired Kiva, Amazon’s vision never meant a binary decision of people or technology. Although the e-commerce giant boasts over 520,000 robotic drive units, it added over a million jobs worldwide, not to mention a dozen different types of robotic systems at its facilities worldwide. Hence, Amazon’s vision is about people and technology working safely and harmoniously in tandem to meet its customers’ demands. That vision hasn’t been diverted ever since.

Kiva’s acquisition, in fact, is the start of its journey in using robots by deploying robotics and other technology at its facilities. Since then, the e-commerce giant has been enhancing both the customer experience as well as the employee experience.

Today, Amazon has invested and is working on its latest techs, Proteus and Cardinal.

Proteus: Safe Movement of Heavy Objects
Affixed with advanced safety, perception, and navigation, specifically designed by Amazon, Proteus is an autonomous mobile robot automatically moving around its facilities. The robot is free to work alongside its human team and doesn’t require to be in enclosed areas. Proteus not only operates safely among its human workforce but helps open up a bigger range of opportunities by giving a hand in moving GoCarts used in moving packages inside the facility.

“Proteus will initially be deployed in the outbound GoCart handling areas in our fulfilment centres and sort centres,” Amazon said.

“Our vision is to automate GoCart handling throughout the network, which will help reduce the need for people to manually move heavy objects through our facility and instead let them focus on more rewarding work,” the company added.

Cardinal: Smart Sorting and Placing of Packages
Using artificial intelligence (AI), Carinal helps to select a particular package from a load, lift it and read the label to flawlessly place it on a GoCart. Then it sends the package on its next journey. The safety factor is that Cardinal does the heavy lifting, preventing its human colleagues from accidents while lifting or turning, or dealing with heavy packages in a confined space. Not only that, but Cardinal is also fast at its job, resulting in a faster processing time of packages inside the facility prior to being sent to their respective delivery addresses. Starting next year, the e-commerce giant plans to appoint Cardinal at its facility centers, and it's already testing the robot for handling packages up to 50 pounds.

Amazon’s Robotic Identification: Scanning Packages from Each Shipment Stage
Powered by AR, it boasts a scanning capability using machine learning and computer vision to enable better and more convenient scanning of packages at its facility centers.

This allows users to track every part of their goods during the shipment process by scanning at each checkpoint. Amazon’s AR-ID smoothens this step by allowing its workforce to pick up a package placed in front of the scanner and place it in the next container. Running at 120 frames per second, the AR-ID automatically captures and scans the product’s unique code. It eliminates the need for its human workforce to manually find the barcode and scan it with one hand while the other holds the package.

In the words of Amazon, “Feedback from employees led us to create Amazon Robotics Identification (AR ID), an AI-powered scanning capability with innovative computer vision and machine learning technology to enable easier scanning of packages in our facilities. Currently, all packages in our facilities are scanned at each destination on their journey. In fulfillment centers, this scanning is currently manual—an item arrives at a workstation, the package is picked from a bin by an employee, and using a hand scanner, the employee finds the bar code and hand-scans the item”.

Containerized Storage System: Safe Storage of Containerized Products
Another invention that has increased worker safety is containerization products. Employees currently choose or stow items onto mobile shelves as they travel through the process of filling customer orders at many Amazon fulfillment centers. We've been working on a robotic system that distributes goods to employees in a more ergonomically pleasant way to decrease the need for workers to reach up, bend over, or climb ladders while retrieving stuff.

The e-commerce giant says that “Our new Containerized Storage System puts employees in a safer and more ergonomic position through a highly choreographed dance of robotics and software. The system helps determine 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. As a result, our employees benefit from a more comfortable, safer experience”.

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