Harsha Mulchandani (MBA ’21) reports on a fulfilling visit to the Amazon Fulfillment Center.
On Friday, October 4, a group of RCs visited an Amazon Fulfillment Center (FC) to witness how Amazon makes magic happen. While it had been a long week for the RCs with the TOM Quiz (yes, the first midterm exam!) and various CPD events, there was palpable excitement as we reached the entrance of this ~1.5 million-square-foot facility (roughly the size of 25 football fields) housing around 400,000 items at a given time.
Though Amazon started operating some of its fulfillment centers in the late 1990s, this facility is only three years old and is non-sortable in its nature of operations—meaning that only large-sized orders such as furniture and equipment are handled here (as opposed to sortable, robot-assisted facilities handling small-sized orders such as books, housewares, and cosmetics).
Once we were all set with our safety vests and headsets, we stepped inside the larger-than-life FC, complete with over 350 powered industrial trucks (the highest number in any Amazon FC), operated by approximately 300 workers as they picked and assembled orders. Our tour leader walked us through the entire process with visual demonstrations.
At the inbound station, a receiver received a regular Amazon item from suppliers, assembled it on wooden pallets, and plastic-wrapped it. The stower then picked these pallets and stowed them into relevant bins. (A bin is analogous to a unique address within the FC; aisles were divided into bins vertically and horizontally.) Once a stower scanned the bin and the items, the two got tagged to each other, and items started showing on the Amazon portal as “for sale.” The pickers operated the powered industrial trucks (PITs) around the aisles to pick relevant items for an order and utilized the PIT’s mechanics to reach the height where the requisite item was placed to pick it up.
What surprised us was the random arrangement of items across the facility without any sections assigned to a certain type of product. “Can we segregate the items and allot pickers to different sections?” asked one RC.
“Random works better for us! Every order has a mix of items; segregating would increase the distance a picker would travel to compile an order,” the tour leader remarked. We were amazed at how this randomness of placement increased the efficiency of order assembly here at Amazon, where codification and methodizing could almost be a temptation.
As we climbed up to the packing, labelling, and sorting level, we took a moment to take in the Cirque du-Soleil-like choreography we had just witnessed: receivers, stowers, and pickers moving in a jumbled yet almost defined flow across the floor, moving up and down beside the aisles, harnessed to their PITs, wearing their safety vests, smiling at each other, stopping as another industrial truck passed and flashing their safety beams to maintain the required distance.
We then made our way to the conveyor-paced line, where packers used order information tickets to pack boxes. Then, a scanner-camera-printer assembly was used to apply labels onto packed boxes. It was amazing to see the information flow on this line—within a span of 3 seconds, information about a package was pushed from Seattle to the FC, and a label was printed to show whether the weight of the package matched what it should be. (As an example, KO, short for “kickout,” was printed if the order weight did not match the expected weight or if any other discrepancy was observed.)
As we walked, absorbing the enormity of the operations, the last leg of Amazon magic was yet to be revealed to us! “When I started here, we manually sorted packages for shipping. With technology, we have come very far in a short time,” announced the tour leader with a hint of pride.
And the pride was justified. As we lowered our heads to observe the sorting mechanism, we exchanged stares of both bewilderment and amazement! A conveyor-paced line fitted with a scanner at the very start scanned the label to push information to programmable pushers. Pushers at the relevant conveyor length then pushed the packet into the appropriate aisles to be loaded onto trucks.
“You have to see it to believe it,” a few murmured. Indeed! Shipping out 50,000 items a day (this number could quadruple on Prime sale days) was no mean feat.
The conversation then turned to employees. Beneath the well-defined operations, which were mechanized and beautifully orchestrated to a point of perfection, there was a strong human element that truly made the place state of the art.
The assistant tour leader elaborated on the human element. “People are our focus. We have modified technology to fit people rather than the other way round. All PITs have protecting grills that protect the operator at all times. We kaizen [a practice of continuous improvement created by the Toyota Production System] everything and come up with the five biggest issues each week and collectively solve them. If we keep people safe and train them to rise to their potential, they value their work more,” she added.
As we were told, employees got medical coverage the moment they started work, were given a paid parental leave of 20 weeks, and could access the Amazon Career Choice initiative after completing one year of tenure. (Through this initiative, Amazon would pay 95% of tuition, fees, and textbooks for associates to earn certificates in high-demand fields such as machine-tool technologies, computer-aided design, and nursing.)
This underscored what we had learnt in the classroom in TOM: operating systems and processes are not just about raw materials, machines, and equipment. They are about people, too. Behaviors and motivations are as crucial a part of the operation as everything else.
We heard an RC quip after the visit, “I was SLAMmed!” (Scan-Label-Apply-Manifest is Amazon jargon for its labelling methodology.) We all were!
My advice to RCs for upcoming trips (other than wearing comfortable shoes and ordering food in advance from Spangler): ask more, listen intently, and prepare to be surprised!
Harsha Mulchandani (MBA ’21) is from India. She previously worked in private equity and consulting, where she focused on consumer goods and retail. She grew up watching fresh toffees come out of machines and now romanticizes about most brands, products, and everything else in life. Harsha loves to dance, teach dance, and talk about it to anyone who will listen.