DUPONT, Wash. — For those with an interest in logistics, robotics, and supply chain efficiency, touring an Amazon fulfillment center is like walking around a wonderland.
GeekWire got a behind-the-scenes look at Amazon’s massive fulfillment center in DuPont, Wash. — an hour south of its Seattle headquarters — on the company’s busiest day of the year, Cyber Monday, to learn more about what exactly happens after you click “purchase” at Amazon.com.
“This is like our Super Bowl,” said Greg Zielinski, general manager of the fulfillment center. “We get as many people in the building as we possibly can to get our customer orders out, and we try to get as much inventory so our customers can see the selection that Amazon has.”
The 1 million square-foot facility — about the size of 28 football fields — opened in 2014 and is a harmonious blend of human power and computer automation, all working together to ship thousands of items each day. There are more than 1,000 full-time employees at the center, in addition to hundreds of seasonal workers that Amazon hires during the holiday season.
The employees are aided by more than 800 Kiva robots in the 8th-generation fulfillment center — a result of Amazon’s $775 million acquisition in 2012 — that do everything from sort packages to lift heavy 3,000-pound pallets 24 feet into the air.
“We are a robotics facility,” Zielinski said. “The robots really serve an essential function in the fulfillment process for our customers. … The Kiva platform enables us to store inventory in a much more condensed manner and also enables us to stow and pick some of that inventory at a quicker rate.”
When products first arrive at the facility on truck trailers, staffers scan each product and create a virtual receipt. They then place items in an inventory bin.
On Monday, there were plenty of vacuum cleaners and snow blowers waiting to arrive at a customer’s doorstep.
Thanks to automatically-guided vehicles and a 6-ton robotic arm, those products eventually move to the other end of the building at “picking” stations where employees can quickly pick items off shelves when a customer order comes in.
The gears really get going when someone clicks “order” on Amazon.com. The “pickers” use a computer monitor that identifies the location of a product on a shelf that moves across the floor automatically via circular orange robots.
From there, products move swiftly across conveyer belts in yellow bins — there are four miles of conveyer belts across the entire facility — down to the shipping area, where workers package items into appropriate boxes and prepare them for shipment.
The last stop is the outbound area of the facility, where packages move even faster along conveyer belts and robots help yet again, this time automatically sending packages down individual chutes depending on which truck — UPS, FedEx, and even Amazon’s own trailers — will deliver the box.
Zielinski said one of the biggest challenges he faces is making sure employees are trained and equipped to handle the busy holiday season. As the Wall Street Journal reported Monday, Amazon is using technology to train new workers in as little as two days.
“We made our process simple enough that we can train quickly and efficiently,” Zielinski noted.
Amazon’s fulfillment centers — there are more than 70 across the U.S. and nearly 150 around the world — are a far cry from Amazon’s first warehouse, where a small staff packaged and mailed out books and founder Jeff Bezos had to be prodded to buy packing tables, as he tells the story.
Technology has clearly helped Amazon keep up with order demand and now powers much of the facility’s operations, helping Amazon both offer more selection and ship items to customers faster.
“There is a lot of process innovation that goes on inside these warehouses,” Zielinski said. “That is probably one of the coolest things about working at Amazon. We are always trying to figure out a new way to fulfill customer orders.”
But Zielinski noted that “it’s still a people-driven process” with employees at every step of the way interacting with the products. Many are concerned about the potential impact of automated manufacturing on future employment, but even as Amazon continues to invest in more automation and technology, the 21-year-old company is hiring 120,000 seasonal workers this holiday season — a new record. That’s up from 50,000 positions during the 2012 holiday season.
“The associates we have on the floor are by far the most valuable asset,” Zielinski said. “They are the backbone of the company. Without them, this would be extremely difficult.”