The inaugural Amazon Picking Challenge – taking warehouse management systems, material handling, and supply chain automation to the next level

amazonThe Amazon Picking Challenge (APC) has come to town! It’s a new event that was held for the very first time at ICRA 2015, the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society’s flagship conference which took place between the 26th to the 30th of May 2015 at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, Washington, USA., Inc is the American electronic commerce giant, headquartered in Seattle, Washington. It is the largest Internet-based retailer in the United States and one of the largest in the world. The company, which began life as on online bookstore, now handles millions of order per day. To be able to handle this workload, Amazon has developed one of the most efficient and sophisticated automated warehouse management systems anywhere in the world today, taking picking and material handling to the next level.

What is the Amazon Picking Challenge?

The Amazon Picking Challenge throws down the gauntlet to challenge businesses in the US to compete against each other to see who can top the challenge by picking the most items in a given short period of time. It will demonstrate just how far industry has gone when it comes down to supply chain automation.

Who can take part?

The challenge is open to all companies based in the US who are interested in material handling and supply chain automation. To make the competition as open and as fair as possible, competition competitors are able to design and build their own robots and software to bring to the State Convention Center, and in addition, Amazon approached a number of picking robot manufacturers to ask them to make available a number of their products for entrants to try out. The manufacturers approached included:

  • Barrett Technology
  • Clearpath
  • Fanuc
  • Olympus Controls
  • Rethink Robotics
  • Yaskawa

Competition contestants can use any type of robot that they think is suitable for this automated material handling task. All of the manufacturers listed above have already established their credentials in supply chain automation. The robots do not have to be of a humanoid design. Each robot can be either mobile or stationery. The only proviso is that once they have been tasked, they must carry out the task autonomously.

What the competition entails in terms of material handling

Robots will be tasked with being positioned at a fixed, lightly populated shelf of inventory. They then have to pick a blend of products and place them on a table. Due to the nature of the products to be picked, the competition challenges the robots to a whole host of material handling disciplines including:

  • Product identification
  • Product positioning recognition
  • Task planning
  • Handing dexterity
  • Time and motion planning
  • Task execution
  • Detecting errors
  • Recovering errors

How it works

Evaluation of a robot’s performance is based on a robot’s ability to pick the highest number of items within a given time period. Points are deducted for incorrect picks, dropped products, and damaged products. A total of $26,000 of prize money is up for grabs.

The layout of the shelving/picking area

The shelving system that all competitors are faced with is a structure made of steel and cardboard. Picking takes place from one picking face. Contestants are able to have several attempts at the competition, but the population of the picking face will be randomly adjusted before each attempt. The picking face is made up of 12 picking bins, in 4 rows of 3, aligned within a 1M x 1M area. The height of the first shelf is 0.78 meters above ground level. The task is to pick 1 product item from each bin.

How picking bins are populated

The items that the picking bins are populated with vary widely in terms of shape, size  and weight, but they are all set out inside the bins so that they could be picked by an average height person (average height being 1.7M), with only one hand.

In terms of picking items, a bin contains either 1 single item, two items (only 1 of which is picked as designated), or multiple items, in which case the task is to pick one of each.

Points are awarded for each correct pick. Points are also deducted for each incorrect pick. The number of points awarded per correct pick is based on the complexity of that pick.

Investing in the future of supply chain automation

Amazon went to a lot of time and expense to fund this material handling competition. All competition entrants were eligible for expenses of up to $6,000-worth of travel support.

In terms of prize money, $20,000 is awarded to the winner, $5,000 to the runner-up, and $1,000 for third place.

After the event, competition entrants are given the opportunity to meet and discuss their approaches to material handling in such a competitive, supply chain automation environment. They also review the challenges presented to today’s warehouse management systems in a highly competitive market sector.

To compete with the likes of Amazon, businesses must be able to meet today’s material handling challenges in terms of pick speed and accuracy. Supply chain automation and warehouse management systems have to be finely tuned. The Amazon Picking Challenge will go a long way towards creating the necessary publicity, and will help to fuel the demand to succeed against the highest levels of competition with organizations like Amazon. But what does Amazon itself stand to gain from hosting the competition?

Amazon takes the long-term view

At the end of the day, Amazon is taking the long term view. By inviting competition entrants to take part in a discussion after the competition; to discuss tactics, performances, and come up with ideas for the next competition, they are laying groundwork for further improvements in warehouse management systems and innovation in material handling technology.

In this, the inaugural event, Team RBO took first prize, Team MIT took second, and Team Grizzly third. The APC itself was a huge success and is sure to be the first of many more conference competitions in the coming years.

What is the next step forward in terms of increasing the speed and accuracy of automated material handling, and are competitions like the Amazon Picking Challenge the best way to find them? What other innovations, apart from competitions, could be appropriate? Have your say at the feedback section below

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