“work hard. have fun. make history.” Those words greet you as you enter Amazon.com’s PHX6 Fulfillment Center in Phoenix, AZ. Amazon.com has well over 100 fulfillment centers around the world, working around the clock to ship to customers. On Cyber Monday 2014, Amazon received 436 orders per second. How do they get all of those products out the door? I got a better idea of how it all works when I recently toured PHX6.
I have been selling books via Amazon Advantage since 2000, and I have been a customer even longer. As an Amazon fangirl, when they started offering tours of some of their fulfillment centers, I jumped at the chance. Apparently I didn’t jump quite fast enough, though—the earliest date available was one year away. Last week, that date finally arrived.
PHX6 is not far from my parents’ house, so I decided to combine a family visit with my pilgrimage to Amazon-land. Dad and I headed off to an industrial area in northwest Phoenix to take our tour. The tour was an hour long, and we got an overview of how merchandise flows through the center. PHX6 handles small- to medium-sized merchandise. Another nearby center handles larger items.
Lisa, our guide, met everyone in the lobby. After a quick reminder that we were not allowed to take photos or videos, we started our tour by watching a video about Amazon. There was a lot of information in the video and on the tour about why Amazon is a great place to work. Clearly they want to counteract the bad press they got when workers complained about conditions in some warehouses. (PHX6 is climate-controlled.) And we heard a lot about the Career Choice program where Amazon pays up to 90% of tuition and 95% of other expenses (e.g., books) for employees seeking degrees in in-demand fields. We also heard about Amazon’s contributions to non-profit organizations. (Um…Isn’t Amazon still a non-profit? Just sayin’.)
After the video, we donned headsets and headed out back out to the warehouse floor. The first thing you notice is the enormity of it all. The warehouse is HUGE: 1.2 million square feet. It contains three stories of shelves that are completely filled with millions of products. From the center of the warehouse, you can barely see the end of the rows of shelves. Looking out over the warehouse from the second floor, all you see is what appears to be miles and miles of shelves and products. One writer compared it to “the closing shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with better lighting.” That sounds about right.
The next thing you notice is that there seems to be no rhyme or reason to how the products are shelved. Each shelf is divided into sections, and a section might contain a couple of books, a DVD, a bottle of vitamins, a portable hard drive, a toy and more.
How do they ever find anything? Barcodes, baby. Automation is king at Amazon. Everything comes in from the trucks, gets barcoded and is put in a zone based on size. The small stuff (books, CDs, DVDs, etc.) goes into the “library.” Larger stuff goes into another zone. And bulk shipments (i.e., pallets of stuff, such as hundreds of copies of a book) go into their own area and pieces are put on the shelves as needed. From there, items are loaded into bins and the bins are placed on carts.
Stowers take the carts around the warehouse and put things wherever they find an open space. When they place an item, they scam its barcode as well as the barcode on the shelf location. They call it “random stowing,” and it truly is. If the warehouse contains ten identical items, they may be stowed in ten different locations around the warehouse.
There is, however, a method to their madness. Pickers have a scan gun and a cart, and they go around picking items off the shelves. The scan gun has a readout telling them the first item to pick and where to get it. They got to the proper section, pick the item off the shelf, scan the barcodes on the item and the shelf, then put the merchandise in a yellow bin. The scan gun then tells them where to go to get their next item. They are not picking all of the items for a particular customer order, they are directed to the next closest item. Once the bin is full, it is sent on a conveyor belt to the next places where items are combined (when a customer has multiple items) and packed.
We didn’t see how they sort and pack the orders with multiple items, but we did see single item packing stations. The employee stands at a station and receives items to pack. The system tells them what size envelope or box to use for each item. After sealing the package and affixing a barcode label, they put it on a conveyor belt, where a shipping label is applied. It is scanned and weighed as it passes along the conveyor and if the weight is more or less than expected, the line automatically kicks out the package to be inspected by a human. They know exactly how much each item weighs, and if the package weight isn’t what it should be, something is wrong. The wrong item might be in the package, or something may be missing or is otherwise just not right.
Packages that are ready to ship are then automatically sorted by the system based on the delivery method: Prime Same Day, Next Day, 2nd Day, Ground, etc. Each package is then sent on a line to the dock where a container for the appropriate shipper is waiting. Employees stack the containers deep and high with packages and the shippers (e.g., UPS, USPS, et al) pick up the containers.
In addition to the employees dashing around with carts and on tricycles, there are tape-covered wire tracks for “trains” that transport merchandise around the warehouse. We didn’t see any while we were there, but it wasn’t as busy as it gets later in the year.
Anyone who sells physical product on Amazon, or even anyone who buys things there, would probably find the tour interesting. If you would like to take a tour, they are offered at six U.S. fulfillment centers and others around the world. Register now rather than later—most tours are booked months in advance. Learn more at http://www.amazon.com/b?node=8947548011