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Supply Chain News: Amazon Receives Patent for Packing Robot Concept that would Work in Tandem with Human Order Pickers


Smart Robots Would Access Sensor Data, Images of Items and More to Determine the Optimal Grasping Strategy

Feb. 21, 2017
SCDigest Editorial Staff

Another week, another supply chain-related patent received by Recent patents have included an idea for dropping packages from flying drones using parachutes (described below), and earlier for a blimp serving as a mobile, airborne distribution center.

This week, we report on a recent Amazon patent is for a complex system using robotic arms to pack goods into shipping cartons in combination with human operators.

The patent filing is complex, but we will cover the highlights here.

Supply Chain Digest Says...

One major question: Does this patent prevent others from developing smart grabbers using the types of data Amazon references in the patent?

What do you say?

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The patent describes how robotic arms or manipulators will controlled in a way that grasps items after they have been picked by a human in the manner best suited for grasping of each item. The grasping strategy could be determined based on data from optical or other sensors, and/or from information in a database about the item's characteristics.

That database could also hold "information indicating grasping strategies that have been successful or unsuccessful for such items in the past," the patent states. (See figure from the patent filing below).

One example of this concept, the patent says, would involve a robotic arm positioned within reach of a tray. A human operator loads the tray with an inventory item (for example a coffee mug) that is to be grasped by the robotic arm and moved into the appropriate shipping carton stored say in a cart with other cartons.

The mug in the tray would be identified according to a unique identifier number, such as by a scanned bar code or radio frequency identification tag. The unique identifier of the mug would be used to access a record about the mug from an item database to determine its weight and a stored digital model representing the shape of the mug.

A camera or other optical imaging device would then be used to scan the mug, providing information about the mug's orientation, such as say that in this case the mug is on its side with the open top facing the camera and the handle to the right.


Amazon's New Patented System for Robotic Order Packing


The weight, shape, and orientation of the mug are collectively used to query a grasping strategy database for the optimal strategy appropriate for this grasp.

That may lead to the system determining in this specific case that it is best to approach the mug from the open top to grasp the mug on its bottom, using 60% of the robotic arm's suction capacity, and to rotate while moving toward the target box so that the mug is set down with the bottom facing down and the handle aligned in the foam slot specially formed in the left side of the box to receive the handle.

Wow, that is a smart robot.

(See More Below)


Learn More about Softeon's Innovative Supply Chain Solutions


What if there are no available strategies are available for a particular item?

A new grasping strategies may be generated. For example, grasping strategies for similar items (such as, other mugs) may be accessed and/or adapted to provide a grasping strategy for the mug presented to the robotic arm.

Alternatively, the human operator may provide input about how the mug may be effectively grasped by the robotic arm, such as by selecting from different options presented on a screen or by donning a glove and grasping the mug so that a grasping strategy for the robotic arm may be generated using information from features on the glove (e.g., pressure sensors, tactile sensors, or fiducial markers used to track the motion of the glove with an optical imaging device).

More wow.

One major question: Does this patent prevent others from developing smart grabbers using the types of data Amazon references in the patent?

As many know, Amazon has conducted a robotic picking contest in each of the past two years, featuring teams from around the world competing to see which technology can best select an oddball assortment of goods from static shelving and placing them into a tote.

As SCDigest reported last year, there was substantial progress in the ability of the robots to select the items and especially how long it took in the second contest versus the first one in 2015. (See Great Progress Made in Amazon's Second Robotic Picking Challenge.)

Another Patent for Drone Deliveries

As mentioned above, Amazon was also recently awarded a patent for a method to guide packages released from drones safely to the ground.

The patent says Amazon is considering keeping its drones high above customers' homes, an approach that could be more efficient and safe.

In the document, Amazon said that landing a drone takes more time and energy than releasing a package from high in the sky. If Amazon's drones don't land in yards, this would also prevent potentially dangerous collisions between the drones and any people, pets or objects in a customer's yard.

The patent also describes how Amazon's drones would use magnets, parachutes or spring coils to release the delivery while in mid-flight. Once the package is released, the drone would then monitor the descending box to make sure it's dropping properly onto the desired landing patch.

For example, wind could potentially blow a package into a balcony, power line or tree. To solve this, Amazon's drones would radio a message to an off-course package, instructing it to deploy a parachute, compressed air canister or landing flap.

Actually, competitors such as Google have shown off similar plans, in which a package is dropped from the sky.

Will this or any of Amazon's other drone delivery plans ever, um, take off? Right now of course they can't even really test the things in the US, given current FAA rules. But SCDigest believe that will have to change, given global competition for drone development

What is your take on Amazon's patent for the smart packing robots? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below or the link above to send an email.


Your Comments/Feedback


Senior Consultant, Infosys
Posted on: May, 22 2016
Great article. I am a little suprised not to see BNSF in the mix while I understand their financial mode/operation is a little different. 

That would only give a complete perspective with all the players in the pool.

Mike O'Brien

Senior editor, Access Intelligence
Posted on: May, 26 2016
Surprised to see Home Depot fall off the list; thought they were winning with Sync?

Julie Leonard

Marketing Director, Inovity
Posted on: Jun, 27 2016
Using the right tool for the right job has always been a best practice and one of the reasons, we feel, that RFID has never taken off in the DC as exponentially as pundits have been forecasting since 2006. While these results may seem surprising to those solely focused on barcode scanning, the adoption of multi-modal technologies in the DC makes perfect sense for greater worker efficiency and productivity.

Carsten Baumann

Strategic Alliance Manager, Schneider Electric
Posted on: Aug, 19 2016

The IoT Platform in this year's (2016) Hype Cycle is on the ascending side, entering the "Peak of Inflated Expectation" area. How does this compare to the IoT positions of the previous years, which have already peaked in 2015? Isn't this contradicting in itself?

Editor's Note: 

You are right, Internet of Things (IoT) was at the top of the Garter new technology hype curve not long ago. As you noted, however, this time the placement was for “IoT Platforms,” a category of software tools from a good number of vendors to manage connectivity, data communications and more with IoT-enabled devices in the field.

So, this is different fro IoT generally, though a company deploying connected things obviously needs some kind of platform – hoe grown or acquired – to manage those functions.

Why IoT generically is not on the curve this year I wondered myself.



Jo Ann Tudtud-Navalta

Materials Management Manager, Chong Hua Hospital, Cebu City, Philippines
Posted on: Aug, 21 2016

I agree totally with Mr. Schneider.

I have always lived by "put it in writing" all my work life.  I am a firm believer of the many benefits of putting everything in writing and I try to teach it to as many people as I can.

This "putting in writing" can also be used for almost anything else.  Here are some general benefits (only some) of "putting in writing":

1. Everything is better understood between parties involved.  There are lots of people types who need something visual to improve their understanding.
2. Everyone can read to review and correct anything misunderstood.  This will ensure that all parties concerned confirm the details of the agreements as correct.  This is further enhanced by having all parties involved sign off on a hard copy or confirm via reply email.
3. Everything has a proof.  Not to belittle the element of trust among parties involved, it is always safest to have tangible proof of what was agreed on.
4. There will be a document to refer to at any time by any one who needs clarification.
5. The documentation can be useful historical data for any future endeavor.  It provides inputs for better decisions on related situations in the future.
6. This can also be compiled and used to teach future new team members.  "Learn from the past" it is said.

There are many more benefits.  Mr. Schneider is very correct about his call to "put it in writing".

Sandy Montalbano

Consultant, Reshoring Initiative
Posted on: Aug, 24 2016
U.S. companies are reshoring and foreign companies are investing in U.S. locations to be in close proximity to the U.S. market for customer responsiveness, flexibility, quality control, and for the positive branding of "Made in USA".

Reshoring including FDI balanced offshoring in 2015 as it did in 2014. In comparison, in 2000-2007 the U.S. lost net about 200,000 manufacturing jobs per year to offshoring. That is huge progress to celebrate!

The Reshoring Initiative Can Help. In order to help companies decide objectively to reshore manufacturing back to the U.S. or offshore, the nonprofit Reshoring Initiative's free Total Cost of Ownership Estimator can help corporations calculate the real P&L impact of reshoring or offshoring.


Transportation Manager, N/A
Posted on: Aug, 30 2016
 Good article!  I am sending this to my colleagues who work with me.  We have to keep this in mind.  Thanks!

Ian Jansen

Posted on: Sep, 14 2016
SCM is all about getting the order delivered to the Customer on date/ time requested because happy Customers = Revenue. Using the right tools to do the right job is important and SCM is heavily dependent on sophisticated ERP systems to get right real data info ASP.

I've worked in a DC with more than 400,000 line items and measured the Productivity of Pickers by how many "picks" per day.

I've learned that one doesn't have to remind Germany about your EDI orders.

Don Benson

Partner, Warehouse Coach
Posted on: Sep, 15 2016
Challenge - to build and sustain effective relationships at the level of the organizations that are responsible for effectively coordinating and colaborating in an otherwise highly competitive environment 


Admin, Fulfillment Logistics UK Ltd
Posted on: Oct, 02 2016
Of course we all need to up our game. We need to move with the times, and always be one step ahead of what the future will bring.

Mike Dargis

President of asset-based carrier based in the Midwest, Zip Xpress Inc. (at
Posted on: Oct, 03 2016
Thanks for the article, but I know there's a lot more to this issue than just the pay rates. Please check out my blogs on the subject at


Inventory Specialist, Syncron
Posted on: Nov, 16 2016
Lora, great article! I agree that companies choose the 'safe' solution more often than not. My solution is a bolt-on for legacy ERP's and we even face challeneges of customer adoption. Most like to play it safe and choose an ERP upgrade, which is more costly, time consuming, and has lower ROI across the board. Would love to learn more about your company, we are always looking for partnerships.


Bob McIntyre

National Account Executive, DBK Concepts LLC
Posted on: Nov, 21 2016
This is a game changer in GE's production and prototyping.  It also has huge implications across the GE global supply chain with regard to the management of their support and spare parts network. 



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