Behind the scenes at an Amazon warehouse, zero margin for errors
The American retail giant now has 50 such warehouses across India. It recently opened DEL 5, a facility near Manesar in Haryana, its sixth such warehouse in the state. “These fulfilment centres help us serve sellers on our platform as well as the buyers. When an FC opens in an area, a lot of small businesses in that region get a big boost,” says Akhil Saxena, VP for customer fulfilment at Amazon, during a recent tour of the facility.
DEL 5 sprawls across 300,000 sq ft, an area that can fit 55 basketball courts. In the US, Amazon’s largest FC has a floor area of 1 million square feet. There is a lot of focus on safety. In the event of a fire alarm, the entire facility is evacuated in 90 seconds.
This network of FCs is the infrastructure backbone of any ecommerce operation. And Amazon, known for ruthless efficiency, elevates warehousing into something of an art, with tech deployment every step of the way.
The robotic warehouses whose footage recently went viral on social media are not here yet, but all Amazon warehouses follow the same processes and algorithmic logic as in Manesar. In the case of robotic warehouses, instead of a human walking up to a shelf, the shelf comes to a human.
Once an item enters the FC, its journey inside is determined by algorithm. Humans follow the instructions and perform a task repeatedly, be it scanning, picking or packaging. Humans are also expected to work with great efficiency. Every step and misstep is measured and evaluated. No mirrors could be spotted in the building, including in the washrooms. A few extra seconds spent adjusting your collar becomes wasted hours, at scale. That is the kind of prioritisation that goes into shipping a parcel in two business days.
Journey of an item inside an FC
Goods arrive by trucks to a loading dock at a designated time. Merchants send packages with barcodes generated using an Amazon dashboard. Each item has a unique ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number). A receiving clerk at the FC scans the barcode. Amazon also knows the dimensions of each item. An item that is entering the Amazon system for the first time goes through a scan that determines its dimensions. This is used to determine where the item will be stored and also the size of the packaging it will eventually end up in.
A principle at the heart of an FC is the pairing of an item and its container, using barcodes. All items and all containers, including carts used to move an item from one area to another, have unique barcodes. When an item is moved from, say, a cart to a shelf, a clerk scans the item and the shelf using a handheld device. This way, Amazon knows where an item is, at all times.
There are broadly two strategies in warehousing — category-based storing and random storing. In the former, all shoes would be in one designated area, for instance. Amazon follows random storage, which is more efficient. This means shoes are randomly spread all over the shelves. So when an item is ordered, the probability of an item being close to a picker is maximised, and time is thus saved. When a customer places an order, the algorithm decides in an instant which picker is the closest to the items in the order and sends the “pick” instruction to that person.
Sorting and Packaging
Containers are diverted into two kinds of packing bays — one for single-item orders and another for multiple-item orders. The single-item bays are relatively uncomplicated. Associates scan the barcode of the item and the system tells them which packaging to pick. At the bay where containers with multiple orders arrive, another level of sorting, also algorithmdriven, is involved. The algorithm decides the picking in such a way that all the items ordered by, say, five customers will arrive in four or five boxes. An associate then scans each item and puts them in different slots and each slot then becomes a complete package for one customer.
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