How good was this factory tour? Good enough not only to give us a glimpse into the future, but also an opportunity to wax philosophical about the future: Will our future be one where we take orders from machines, feeding them and removing what … needs removal according to commands from the machines themselves? Or will they be serving us?
This is the story of our Visit to an Amazon Fulfillment Center, one of our stops during our travels. Whichever your interpretation of the human/machine relationship is, the fulfillment center a work of wonder, both from a technological and a process perspective. Let’s start by meeting the actors of the Amazon Fulfillment Center:
- The Pod: we visited one of the newer Amazon fulfillment centers; instead of long aisles of shelves that humans have to walk to find purchased items, the items come to them since they’re all stored on pods. These pods are yellow rectangular containers, about 6 feet high, lined on each of the 4 sides with shelves. Each shelf has bins of varying sizes. Each bin contains … the stuff we buy on Amazon. These pods move, we mean move. They move fast, using QR codes on the floor, and are sensor-aware of their surroundings so that they can get REALLY close to each other in what looks like a dance rather than mechanical pods.
- The Picker: this is a person who stands at a station, with pods lining up next to the station. The picker sees an item to be picked on their display (monitor). A light shines on the right bin on the right shelf on the pod in front of the picker. The picker reaches into the bin, and picks the item ordered. Under the display there are several (yellow) buckets, and an indicator into which bucket to drop the picked item. Rinse and repeat. What was awesome was when we saw a picker sign out, all the pods that were waiting by to have items picked (there’s a queue of those) immediately dispersed, all the buckets were moved away on conveyer belts and in no time flat that station was completely cleared. Process excellence ftw!
- The Stower: this person stands at the same type of station as the picker (there’s a manual indicator at the front of the station indicating if it’s being used by a picker or a stower), with boxes of items in front of them. They pick up an item from the box, scan it and place in a bin in one of the pods that come and go. Rinse and repeat. So they’re the “feeders” of the pods, the pickers are the “removal” personnel.
- The Packer: This person packs the items that were picked into boxes. Again, it all starts with an order displayed for packing, alongside the right size of the box that it (for a single item order) should be packed in. They build the prescribed box, a tape JUST the right length is pre-dispensed to tape the bottom of the box, they place the item in the box, with just the right amount of “bubble” filler and another tape, again, just the right length gets pre-dispensed for them. A barcode sticker (no identifying names/addresses are displayed to the packer) gets printed to be attached on the marked spot on the box, and any other additional stickers (like battery warnings), and off it goes. Rinse and repeat.
There’s a lot of technological and process magic that goes on: for example, at a later stage, each barcode on a packed box gets scanned, and if the weight is not exactly (and that’s emphasized for a reason… for example, if the box has a dvd case and the dvd is not inside, it’ll detect the weight differential!) what the sum of the packing material plus content is supposed to be, it’ll get kicked for inspection. Inspection is by a human who opens the box and investigates what happened and makes it right.
The pods detect stray items that may have fallen on the ground and can mark them as “no go zones,” if they detect humans (by sensors on their clothes) they slow down significantly and form a “no go” sphere. Someone definitely paid a lot of attention to the details, to the technology, to the process. It’s really well synchronized. And, yes, there’s much more to be told.
It made us wonder: what the role of humans is (and will be) in this process. Of course the whole fulfillment center is to fulfill orders of, well, humans, but is that more of a Matrix-like fulfillment of desires?
Either way, the visit to the Amazon fulfillment center is hugely worth while… and it’s FREE, we’re thinking of going again. Go ahead and book one of the hour long tours at https://www.aboutamazon.com/amazon-fulfillment-center-tours/. It seemed short, which we believe is the greatest compliment we can give.
Are you going to book a tour? What do you think about it?
Related (technology) trivia question: Bill introduced the founders of a California company in 1971 and became its first full-time employee in 1977. What was the name of the company?
Answer to last post’s trivia: Nauru. In case you have some official business with them, their government offices are located in the Yaren District. Big gold stars ✨ to Janis (first to get it right!) and Pete.