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Amazon opens new robotics plant in Westborough

An employee inside the Amazon facility in Westborough.
An employee inside the Amazon facility in Westborough.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Online retailer Amazon is doubling down on its commitment to automated warehouses, as it opens a new robot factory in Westborough.

The 350,000-square-foot facility, which had a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday, will make “drive units,” robotic platforms that lift entire shelves of merchandise and move them to stations where workers pick out individual items for shipment to customers.

A view of one of the Amazon robots. The new facility assembles the robots on a type of assembly line and test drives them inside the building.
A view of one of the Amazon robots. The new facility assembles the robots on a type of assembly line and test drives them inside the building. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Nine years ago, Amazon acquired Kiva Systems, the North Reading company that invented the drive units, and renamed it Amazon Robotics. Since then, the tech giant has installed 350,000 of the units in its warehouses around the world. The new Westborough plant will make thousands more, with the help of 200 newly hired factory workers. In addition, the site will host a research facility where Amazon will work on new robot designs.

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Amazon's new robotics facility in Westborough.
Amazon's new robotics facility in Westborough.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Amazon did not give specifics about its research in Westborough. But in its recent blog postings, the company has revealed tests of a robot called Ernie that would use a mechanical arm to pluck bins of merchandise from shelves and pass them to human packers. It’s also working on several kinds of wheeled robots that could move goods throughout company warehouses without posing a safety hazard to nearby human workers.

The Amazon expansion further enhances the status of Massachusetts as a global leader in warehouse robotics systems. In addition to Amazon Robotics, the state is home to a host of other companies in the field, including Berkshire Grey, Vecna Robotics, Locus Robotics, 6 River Systems (now part of Shopify), Symbotic, RightHand Robotics, and others.

Employees tests drive Amazon robots as soon as they come off the assembly line inside the building.
Employees tests drive Amazon robots as soon as they come off the assembly line inside the building. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Amazon stressed that its commitment to robots isn’t coming at the expense of human workers. The company said that while it began automating its warehouses in 2012, it also hired a million workers over the same period.

“As a company we have created more than 20,000 jobs in Massachusetts since 2010 in communities from Boston to Westborough and beyond,” said Amazon Robotics vice president Joe Quinlivan in a prepared statement.

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Earlier this week, Amazon said it will hire 1,500 temporary workers in Massachusetts as the company prepares for the holiday shopping season. Amazon plans to employ 150,000 seasonal workers nationwide.







Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.