Q: So, you got to tour an Amazon warehouse? That’s pretty cool.
A. Yes, it was, though technically it is a “fulfillment center.”
Q: “Fulfillment center” that sounds both Orwellian and New Age-y.
A. It does, yes.
Q: So, where was it, and how do you get to do it?
A. It’s the center in Middletown, DE., and anyone can sign up for a tour on the Amazon tour website here.
Q: So, tell me about the facility then.
A. It opened in 2012, and is a “7th generation” facility. It covers 1.2 million square feet, contains 10 miles of conveyor belts, and employs 2,000 people.
Q: Interesting. Did you see any of those cool Kiva robots?
A. I did not. Those are being rolled out in the 8th generation facilities. And you can see how quickly Amazon is evolving its processes that a center that is four years old is already a generation behind. Warehouse infrastructure aging as quickly as personal electronics.
Q: So, what happens at this center? What kind of products do they carry?
A.This facility is a medium to small goods fulfillment center, so no big items like televisions, or bikes, or furniture. It’s a lot of books, fast-moving consumer goods, and household items.
Q: What happens here? What is the process?
A. It starts with intake—the incoming goods are scanned by the stowers and this scan records what it is, its dimensions, and price. The stowers eventually fill a cart with intake goods and move to the shelves.
Goods are stored wherever there is space, not in a particular location. The stower will find a shelf space, scan the barcode that is the address of that space and then re-scan the product, letting this system know that item is in that place. As soon as the item is scanned for the shelving, it also goes live on the Amazon website as available stock.
Q: So how does it get from the warehouse—fulfillment center—to my house?
A. A picker receives a list of items needed for order that are located in his or her section. The picker finds the item on the self, scans it to indicate it has been removed from the shelf, and then places the item into a barcode-labeled bin with other items on the pick-up list. That bin is then sent to the packing area, where goods for orders are finally grouped and sent along to the packer.
Q: So then the packer just puts it all in the box and that’s that?
A. Well, there are some cool aspects of packing. For example, remember when I mentioned that all incoming products have their dimensions recorded? Well the packer is told by the system what size of box is going to be needed for the goods in this order. Not only that, the computer tells the packer exactly the length the piece of tape to seal the box needs to be.
Q: Huh. So, how worried do I have to about Amazon warehouse workers knowing what I ordered?
A. Good question. Not very worried at all. When an order comes in, it is anonymized: A specific order is assigned a code, and that is how the order is tracked. And remember, an order that has multiple items is likely collected by different pickers, so no one picker may know what is going into the delivery box
Even when the order reaches the packer, the packer still does not know who or where the order is going. When she seals the box, her station prints out a barcode sticker coded with name/address info. The box is put on a conveyer belt and that sticker is read and a mailing label is attached to the box.
Q: Is there anything about this that you thought was cool?
A. Yes. From the time the box leaves the packer, moves down the conveyer, and gets mailing labeled, it was all of four seconds. I timed it a half-dozen times. Think about that for a minute—the box is scanned, that triggers a search of a database for name and address, that result is returned, and then a sticker is printed and attached. Four seconds! Think about how long it takes to open a big Excel file sometimes—easily four seconds, and this process is querying a massive database and then also engaging in the physical process of printing and affixing a label. It was by far the most impressive part (for me) of this tour.
Q: Yeah, I can tell. So, what else did you learn?
A. Amazon guest-relations representatives are amazingly well-trained, especially at turning your question around and restating it as something positive about the company. Also, based on the representative’s reply, they are VERY sensitive to the question of workers being displaced by automation.
Q: Oh? I was going to ask more about the robots.
A. Yes, we were told a couple of times that the Kiva robots do not replace workers and have not resulted in job losses. As they are currently used, they bring the shelves or bins from the shelves to the pickers, rather than the pickers having to walk the aisles looking for the order products themselves.
Q: Any other Amazon trivia that you picked up that you’d like to share?
A. All fulfillment centers are named for the closest international airport and the generation of center they are. So this one in Middletown, DE is PHL-7, as Philadelphia is the nearest airport and it is, as I mentioned, a 7th generation facility.
Q: Well, this has been interesting, thanks for answering my questions today.
A. My pleasure.