They are simple to operate: Employees stand at stations on the perimeter of the warehouse, while the robots bring them shelving pods that contain the items. The person then scans each item and drops it in the box that will be shipped to the customer. The robots then return the pods to storage.
Multiple-item orders are just as easy. Because the robots know where — and how far away — each item is in the warehouse, they can adjust the time it takes to retrieve it, ensuring that each item in an order arrives at the picking station at the same time.
Adkins said the robots have brought many benefits. “We’re about twice as productive from a labor standpoint because you need fewer [human] touch points with the product,” he said. “When you pick items, they go directly into the shipping container. So you get twice as much work with the same labor.”
Additionally, the system uses half the energy as the old system of conveyors, takes up less storage space per square foot and can grow with the company. In fact, as Zappos pushes beyond shoes and toward other product categories, the system will be able to expand and handle different types of product.
Still, human labor will never be a thing of the past. Processing returns, done in the same building, remains just as important to the business model as fast fulfillment, since one-third of all items is returned to Zappos. “I can’t imagine that being automated,” said Adkins. “It requires thousands of judgments.”