From Alexa to Prime Air: Amazon opens Cambridge Development Centre
Mission: 'To delight customers'. We visit the opening of the electronic retail giant's new centre in the heart of the city
In Cambridge, you get the launch event you deserve, and the opening of the new Amazon Development Centre on Station Road was as close to a slam dunk as you’ll find.
Amazon’s Cambridge unveil was orchestrated by its London-based marketing, press relations and launch event teams headed by UK country manager Douglas Gurr, who clearly enjoyed welcoming guests to the new 60,000sq ft site at One The Square, in the heart of the city’s CB1 station hub.
The facility, part of the electronic commerce and cloud computing firm’s £6.4billion investment in the UK since the setting up operations in 2010, houses 400 R&D-facing employees working on technology projects such as the Echo smart speaker range; Alexa, the voice-led personal assistant; Prime Air, Amazon’s future delivery system which includes drones, plus core machine learning and retail systems to improve the shopping experience.
“Let me tell you a little bit about Amazon,” began Dr Gurr. “Anybody here an Amazon customer?” The audience’s laughter indicated probably no one wasn’t: indeed the company has become a unique economic phenomenon in its own right since being founded in 1994, with 2016 turnover up to $136billion, mostly from its online retail product sales.
“In some ways we’re a very simple company, what we do is to connect businesses and customers.”
Having started as an online bookseller, Amazon added CDs plus DVDs in 1998 and expanded from there: today it is a marketplace for 480 million products. Since launching the Kindle e-reader in 2007 new devices and services have included Prime, Fire tablets, Fulfilment by Amazon, AWS, Kindle Direct Publishing, Fire TV, Amazon Echo and Alexa.
“We are constantly surprised by the pace at which innovation takes place,” Dr Gurr said of the digital economy. “In our experience customer expectations keep rising and they’re rising at an increasing pace.”
Cambridge is the third Amazon site after Edinburgh – “our first Development Centre outside the US” – and London.
“The reason we are so committed to the UK is firstly, the UK is a great consumer culture, we love to serve our customers here, and second because the UK is a phenomenal location in which to find world-class talent.” Dr Gurr noted that Amazon is involved in the Cambridge LaunchPad initiative to encourage the study of STEM subjects in local schools and colleges – a welcome investment in the next generation of engineers and scientists.
Introducing the mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, James Palmer, Dr Gurr said: “There’s a million people in James’ area or, as we like to say, a million potential customers.”
Palmer followed the laughter with a jest of his own. Congratulating the company on the opening of the new site, he added: “And well done for coming to a location within 50 yards of the station, so we don’t need to provide any infrastructure, rather than – as so often happens – building the site and asking us to pop the infrastructure in afterwards.” It was funny but we feel your pain, James, we really do.
Amazon’s senior manager in Cambridge, David Hardcastle, said: “There are many diverse teams here at the Amazon Development Centre Cambridge: what we have in common is we invent things and we invent at scale.
“We have products and data servers all over the world, and we’re engaged in customer-facing innovation on a global scale.”
Amazon’s 100-strong team at Castle Park – which tested drones near Cambridge last year – will continue its work, although there is no target date for the start of drone deliveries.
“We’re very serious about drone technology,” Dr Gurr said in a Q&A session. “It’s 30 minutes from click to delivery. We did our first live delivery close to Cambridge, though clearly we’re never going to launch that service until we are convinced that it’s completely safe.”
The work on Alexa will see the service expand “so visually impaired people can benefit from Alexa, and elderly people, so they could call by voice [command] the people they want to speak to.”
The firm has replaced the term “customer focus” with “customer obsession” and it shows. Dr Gurr says the firm does pay attention to the competition but “we obsess about what we do”.
The Cambridge team includes machine learning technicians, cloud developers, laboratory engineers, mathematical modellers plus software, imaging and data scientists, who share “the passion to find new things that customers need, and to delight customers”.
“Thank you,” concluded Dr Gurr. “It’s terrific to feel welcomed.”