Inside an Amazon robotic sortation center: How automation is changing the ‘middle mile’

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An Amazon Robotics inside the PIT9 sortation center in Pennsylvania, where robotic platforms deliver rolling carts of packages to workers for loading onto trucks. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

IMPERIAL, Pa. — For a first-hand look at how robots and automation are changing logistics, we recently visited “PIT9,” an Amazon facility that opened last fall in the hills of Western Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh.

This is a sortation center, a hub accepts packages bound for a broad region of the country and routes them to local facilities. Sortation centers are the “middle mile” between fulfillment centers, where products are put into packages; and delivery stations, where packages are put into delivery vehicles to be left on doorsteps.

The entrance to Amazon’s PIT9 sortation center outside of Pittsburgh. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Amazon is equipping the latest versions of these sortation centers with its newest robotics and automation technology to assist workers, and orchestrate the flow of packages through the facility.

PIT9 serves parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. The facility employs about 450 people. Amazon says the overall impact of the automation on jobs in these facilities is neutral, because the systems are replacing older forms of automation, and assisting human workers to make the overall operation more efficient.

Robotic platforms bring carts to a portal inside the Amazon sortation center. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

One one side of the building, Amazon Robotics robots, evolved from the company’s acquisition of Kiva Systems, are able to pick up heavy carts of packages to move them automatically across the sortation center floor, bringing them to the appropriate portal to make it easier for Amazon workers to load them into trucks.

The robots scan codes on the bottom of each cart to identify which load they’re picking up. When they’re running low on power, they automatically dock to recharge.

An automated singulator maneuvers packages into a single line. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

On the other side of the building, fast-moving conveyor belts carry packages onto an automated singulator, a mechanism that arranges the packages into a single line and spaces them out.

That way, the individual asset code on each package can be scanned efficiently as it passes through a large portal just around the bend inside the facility.

Packages are scanned to determine where they need to be routed. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

By scanning those codes, the system can then send packages down the appropriate chutes so they can be placed onto the correct pallets by Amazon workers.

Here’s a video from inside the facility.

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