June 6, 2019

Amazon unveils Xanthus and Pegasus fulfillment robots

Models mark "first major redesign" of e-commerce giant's vaunted automation fleet as company invests in next-day delivery.

By Ben Ames

Amazon Pegasus robotE-commerce leader Amazon.com Inc. on Wednesday announced it had developed two sleek new warehouse robot models called Xanthus and Pegasus, saying the designs are intended to improve safety and efficiency for its sprawling buildings and enormous workforce.

The company has already deployed 800 of the Pegasus units to its facilities, a small portion of the 200,000 robotic drive units it operates globally, but one it intends to rapidly increase. Those robots are concentrated at the 50 robotic fulfillment centers Amazon operates among its global footprint of 175 fulfillment centers and more than 40 sort centers, the company said.

The launch comes as Amazon is investing heavily in its distribution network to support its April offer to upgrade the nationwide delivery terms of its Amazon Prime subscription service from two-day to next-day shipping.

In pursuit of ratcheting up its service speeds, Seattle-based Amazon has been a leader in the trend to automate fulfillment operations ever since it acquired the technology firm Kiva Systems LLC for $775 million in 2012, rebranded it as Amazon Robotics, and ceased selling its squat, orange units to competing DCs.Those Kiva robots raised the industry's bar for goods-to-person automation by cruising through fulfillment centers, maneuvering underneath racks of inventory, and carrying those loaded shelves to warehouses laborers who would pick and pack individual items for shipping to consumers' homes.

However, the latest units follow a different workflow pattern than Kiva, the company said at its re:MARS conference in Las Vegas this week. The Xanthus model is the company's "first major redesign of our core drive-based robot," creating a common, sled-based foundation that serves as a mobile, modular base that can carry a wide range of potential attachments, according to Amazon.

In an address from the conference stage, Amazon's vice president of robotics, Brad Porter, said the Xanthus model has a much thinner profile than the Kiva unit, with one-third the number of parts, one-half the cost, easier maintenance, and the same safety features. That versatility will allow Amazon to customize solutions to specific needs within each building and install them without significant redesign, the company said. In Las Vegas, Amazon demonstrated attachments called the Xanthus Sort Bot and Xanthus Tote Mover, while promising many more variations to follow.

Amazon's senior vice president of operations, Dave Clark, also posted a short video yesterday of some Xanthus modular drive units operating in an Amazon sort-center.

In another development, Amazon unveiled its Pegasus drive unit, saying the product is bringing robotics to its sortation buildings for the first time. Pegasus also moves beyond the Kiva model, thanks to its ability to sort and route individual packages instead of moving tall storage pods, while maintaining the core technology of the Amazon Robotics storage floors, the company said.

The Pegasus robots also calculate the most efficient route for each drive unit to avoid traffic jams on the sortation floor, maximize throughput, improve quality control, and maximize sort density. The operation is all monitored by an Amazon employee in a new job position called the "flow control specialist," responsible for managing inbound and outbound package volume and distribution, Amazon said.

The impact of adding these robotics and new technologies to its operations network could improve both the customer experience and employees' experience, the company said. "We are always testing and trialing new solutions and robotics that enhance the safety, quality, delivery speed and overall efficiency of our operations," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. "Our new Pegasus drive units help to reduce sort errors, minimize damage, and speed up delivery times. The Xanthus family of drives brings an innovative design, enabling engineers to develop a portfolio of operational solutions, all off the same hardware base through the addition of new functional attachments."

Amazon's new Xanthus and Pegasus bots arrive on the logistics scene at a time when many competing retailers and third party logistics providers (3PLs) have been developing their own versions of robots designed for fast, accurate fulfillment. As opposed to Amazon's approach of privatizing its robotic development, these firms offer a wide range of models to fit nearly any size and type of operation, ranging from autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) from vendors such as Locus Robotics, Fetch Robotics, and GreyOrange to piece-picking arms from RightHand Robotics and inVia Robotics, and integrated systems and networks from Berkshire Grey and MonarchFx.

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

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