Robots have transformed Amazon’s fulfillment process, but workers are still critical.
Amazon’s 855,000 square-foot Troudale fulfillment center began operations one year ago. On Aug. 2 it opened doors to the press for the first time. It was explained the company wanted to get any kinks out of the operation before offering tours. While this location uses robots to do the heavy lifting, it was surprising to see how much of the manual labor was still performed by people.
The machines of automation certainly make the shipping of thousands of orders a day more efficient, but the facility still employs about 2,000 people full time to run the shipping line 22 hours a day, with two hours downtime for maintenance.
The tour was lead by Michael Moore, the fulfillment center’s general manager. We journalists had to be wired for sound so that we could hear Moore over the whirring din of the machinery.
The robots themselves have an understated design. In the photo above they can be seen under the yellow “pods” that they move around. These robots are able to move up to 750 pounds.
When products arrive in the center, they are brought to a “Universal Station.” Here an associate takes them from a yellow bin and scans them. As each item is scanned, the computer tells the associate where it should be stowed in the pod. When the pod is full a robot rolls it to the storage area and a new one shows up to be loaded with merchandise.
The work seems repetitive and well suited to a machine. Why is a worker doing this stowing? Moore explains that some jobs require certain fine motor skills and tactile responses that people are just better at. He adds that the company is investigating robotic solutions. It’s also worth noting that the stower needs to inspect each item to make a judgement about its quality and readiness for sale, a job that would be difficult for a robot.
All the operations in the fulfillment center are monitored by a “Quarterback” in the Command Center.
Once a product is ordered a robot rolls the pod over to a packer. A computer tells the packer which box is best suited to the object, which is packed and sealed quickly.
Amazon has a program to cover tuition for education in many high-demand areas. It encourages associates to further their schooling, perhaps because the company understands that many of the entry-level positions are bound to be eliminated as the process becomes more automated.
Once packaged, the items run through the “SLAM” line which stands for Scan, Label, Apply, Manifest.
During the trip down the SLAM line, the boxes are weighed and shipping labels are automatically applied.
If there is a jam on the line, a person is notified immediately so they can help the system get moving again.
A “Singulator” funnels all the boxes into a single line with the correct orientation. From there they are fed into a scanner, which reads the shipping destination.
After scanning, yellow tabs move the boxes off the conveyor belt down the chute that brings them to the correct truck to deliver the orders to their final destination.
This facility is just one of several fulfillment centers in the region. With Amazon receiving more than one million orders a day, fulfillment is really the entirety of their business.
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