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Inside an Amazon Warehouse 206

Posted by samzenpus
from the packing-it-up dept.
redletterdave writes "In each one of Amazon.com's 80 fulfillment centers around the globe, Amazon relies on barcodes and human hands rather than robots or automation to find and ship the proper items in a quick and efficient manner. Without robots, Amazon utilizes a system known as 'chaotic storage,' where products are essentially shelved at random but are tagged with barcodes to be scanned at every step of the ordering, selection and shipping process. The real advantage to chaotic storage is that it's significantly more flexible than conventional storage systems. If there are big changes in a product range, the company doesn't need to plan for more space, because the products or their sales volumes don't need to be known or planned in advance if they're simply being stored at random. Free space is also better utilized in a chaotic storage system, and it's also a major time saver to not organize products as they come in. This system is the true key to Amazon.com's success in online retail."
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Inside an Amazon Warehouse

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  • Humans vs. Robots (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gentryx (759438) * on Friday November 30, 2012 @04:49AM (#42139515) Homepage Journal

    Chaotic storage works because the barcode of each shelved item is scanned together with the barcode of its shelve, so that the computer can later on tell the humans where to find the stuff for a certain order.

    Apparently there is no reason why this wouldn't work with robots. Apparently robots are still to expensive or not smart (in terms of physical skills) enough.I wonder when we'll see Amazon experimenting with robots.

  • Not all roses... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 30, 2012 @05:02AM (#42139549)

    I work in a fulfilment centre myself, and i can say that while the storage is very efficient, as mentioned, the algorithms that rout pickers to collect the various items leave a lot to be desired. Its all well and good having ingenious storage systems, but if you have to spend 2 minutes walking to a particular shelf location to collect item X passing 8 different bins containing item X along the way, it wastes huge amounts of time and effort. For example, our fulfilment centre is LOSING $250000 due simply to pick-routing inefficiencies...

  • Re:Humans? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by uncqual (836337) on Friday November 30, 2012 @05:40AM (#42139703)
    As others have noted, Amazon purchased Zappos which utilizes Kiva in their warehouses. I expect Amazon to adapt Zappos models more than Amazon to migrate Zappos to their model. Every time a robot/computer replaces a human (been going on for 40 years), the fractional replacement human is a high skilled person than the multiple people they replaced. Think stocking -- the programmer costs a lot more and requires a lot more education than the human picker -- but the programmer's work can be deployed without limitations to service 6 billion people (and more later).

    The first world societies have to understand real soon that they need to figure out what to do with the jobless masses with IQs under 110 in fifty years. The answer can't be "pay them to breed more crack babies", the answer has to be "each generation values breeding less and eduction more" - or expect their economy to sink under the economic sea like most of the PIGS probably will.
  • by Bieeanda (961632) on Friday November 30, 2012 @07:52AM (#42140259)
    A few years back, someone ordered a book for me from Amazon. The package arrived as normal, but it was a completely different book inside, and one that I already had. So the sender got in touch with Amazon, the order was double-checked, and after some back and forth they sent a new package out.

    The second package had the same book in it.

    So did the third.

    It turns out that for some reason, possibly because they were part of the same product line, these two books were assigned the same Amazon-internal barcode. Because of this I never got the book that was ordered, but instead ended with two copies of the book that was mistakenly sent, and a credit for the cost of the original order.

    What might have been an easily remedied issue, had storage followed a logical pattern and the fulfillment person given enough autonomy to detect and solve the problem, ended up taking months to get to the bottom of.

  • It works great (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sjbe (173966) on Friday November 30, 2012 @08:29AM (#42140391)

    Since there's no organizational scheme, I assume that the human workers have to be told turn by turn where to go?

    There is an organizational scheme, it's just not by by product and workers will be told where to go regardless of what storage system the company uses. I implemented a version of this about 10 years ago in our warehouse for an auction company I owned. Basically you build a warehouse with identifiers on the shelving system. Then you assign a random and (this is the important bit) uniformly distributed code to each box/pallet/SKU that you store. You can't tell where a product is by the product, you have to look up the location in the computer but after that it's easy to find. This system works really well when you have a wide array of rapidly changing merchandise that you can't predict arrival times or quantities for. Amazon would be a great fit for a warehousing system like this.

    This kind of storage scheme means that the human workers are simply meat waldos serving the computer software that runs the place.

    That's true for pretty much all warehouses regardless of organizational scheme. Once you get to a warehouse of any size you have to have a computer to direct where to find merchandise to pick to an order. Even if the worker knows where to get it they still will need direction from the computer on quantities to pick.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 30, 2012 @08:42AM (#42140463)

    You think this is bad ? Then take a look at the future: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWY8uFlteIM [youtube.com]

    Now that is a meat waldo.

  • Re:Humans? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 30, 2012 @09:18AM (#42140625)

    I have worked at such a warehouse as christmas reinforcement, and can confirm the soul-crushingness of the job. The only reason I took it was I was in a spot where it was either take a last-minute job, or lose my apartment. The work is grueling, brainless, and people will hate you for every little fuckup that happens because it holds up the line. The routine is: Grab a bin from the conveyor belt, find the entries on the included list that are located in your division, put labels on them, put them in the bin, and send it on its way. For 12 hours a day. Nobody talks to anybody. It's not that they're bad people, it's just that there's no room for any sort of socializing, or anything that would help boost morale. The hallways and bathrooms are covered in motivational and anti-alcohol/drug posters. I know I'd drink if that were my full-time job.

    My paycheck at the end of the month ended up covering half my rent. Entirely unlivable, and definitely a job that should and could be done 95% by robots. Luckily I ended up getting a job the next month that paid nearly 5x that.

    capcha: merchant

  • Not so terrible (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 30, 2012 @09:58AM (#42140837)

    I work at a fulfillment warehouse and it's actually a great place to work. Granted, I'm an office geek but we take care of our hourly workers very well. Everything we do to modify the shipping process (basically an assembly line) is to make things not only quicker but easier on the workers as well. Everyone is encouraged to make contributions to the team and there is plenty of opportunity to move up, get raises etc. Benefits are excellent and the pay is good. Nobody gets chewed out for making a mistake, we just look at the process itself and how we can prevent such a mistake in the future by doing things differently. Why would you run it any other way? The people packing the boxes can make or break the place. It pays to keep them happy and caring about their jobs.

  • Re:Not all roses... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hibiki_r (649814) on Friday November 30, 2012 @10:07AM (#42140887)

    The traveling salesman only becomes hell when the number of stops is very high, and it is relatively expensive to know the cheapest route before point A and point B. The thing is, neither of those is true in a warehouse.

    I don't know how long a typical route is for an Amazon picker, but when I was writing warehouse software, pickers were only getting about a dozen items per trip: typically far larger than a book. With so few items, and a warehouse that is not really a random graph, we were able to get extremely good solutions for picking. As an approximation, just try to a mock traveling salesman problem in a square grid, where you can only travel on both axis.

FORTRAN is a good example of a language which is easier to parse using ad hoc techniques. -- D. Gries [What's good about it? Ed.]

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