Amazon's automated warehouse

June 1, 2016 03:52 PM

As a frequent traveler up and down Interstate 94 between Chicago and Milwaukee, I witnessed the construction of one of Inc.’s newest fulfillment centers as it sprouted up in a sparsely built-out industrial corridor in Kenosha County, Wisconsin.

The sprawling 158-acre campus has a 1-million-square-foot fulfillment center stocking small-sized products and an adjacent 500,000-square-foot sortation center where already boxed parcels arriving from elsewhere in Amazon’s fulfillment network are sorted for handoff to the U.S. Postal Service and other carriers for last-mile delivery.

The fulfillment center shipped out its first order in June 2015, and spent last summer scaling up operations and hiring personnel. It had its official grand opening in October, which I attended along with a gaggle of politicians and local media. Amazon won’t say how many orders ship from the facility each day or how quickly goods go from point A to point B, but take it from me, it is fast.

Here’s an inside look at the facility and how it works.

Amazon began construction in late 2013 and spent $155 million building the facility. The facility is one of 15 Amazon warehouses that follow what the retailer calls its “eighth generation” warehouse design. It currently has more than 2,500 full-time employees, making it the largest private employer in Kenosha County. Amazon is eligible for up to $10.3 million in tax credits from the county for building the center there. Employees work four 10-hour shifts a week.

The fulfillment center is four stories tall, and the upper level is where the robots rule. The center is equipped with Amazon Robotics—the result of Amazon’s $775 million cash purchase of Kiva Systems Inc. in 2012—and hundreds of 320-pound robotic sleds (the orange machines under the bins) crisscross the product floor to bring bins of goods to picking stations, where employees retrieve items from them to prepare an order. Each robot can lift 750 pounds. Information shown on the screen directs employees to which bin has the necessary products and also displays a photo of the product.

Picked products are placed in bins, which sail along a belt and conveyor system manufactured by Intelligrated, to a lower floor, where they are boxed. The Kenosha facility only fulfills orders for products that are smaller than a microwave, says general manager Brian Urkiel.

“Our systems know where [the robots are] exactly at any point in the product field. Our sophisticated technology is able to place where any inventory is, where all the robots are and what stations are available at any time,” Urkiel says. There are more than 30,000 robots working in Amazon’s U.S. fulfillment centers.

About one-third of the fulfillment center space is designated for bulk inventory, including goods shipped in by marketplace merchants using Fulfillment By Amazon.

There are dozens of stations where staff box and add packing materials to orders. A machine then seals and labels the packages.

Package labels are scanned on their way to the truck bays, and shunted to the appropriate dock sorted by destination.

As of May 2016, Amazon has 76 large-scale fulfillment centers in the United States, and has announced plans for 19 more, according to logistics and consulting firm MWPVL International Inc. Currently, 15 of them, including the Kenosha center, use Amazon Robotics, and Amazon plans more. It has 26 U.S. sortation centers, with four more in the works. Amazon operates 182 fulfillment centers outside the United States. Amazon generated net sales of $107.1 billion last year.




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