Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!


Forgot your password?
Businesses The Almighty Buck The Internet

Inside an Amazon Warehouse 206

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."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Inside an Amazon Warehouse

Comments Filter:
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 30, 2012 @04:08AM (#42139361)

    I utilize a chaotic storage system.

  • Hmm... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 30, 2012 @04:08AM (#42139363)

    It sounds like someone needs to run a defrag on those warehouses.

    • Re:Hmm... (Score:5, Funny)

      by gagol ( 583737 ) on Friday November 30, 2012 @05:09AM (#42139575)
      Have you ever tried to get a teenager to defrag his room?
      • Have you ever tried to get a teenager to defrag his room?

        Well, mine are pretty good at fragging theirs...

      • Have you ever tried to get a teenager to defrag his room?

        Yes. I tried for years and years. Then I had an idea which was quite weird. I told him that I do not care about his room, just no biological warfare lab stuff.

        So one day, several months later, he asks if some friends can spend the night. I told him, "sure, not a problem."

        The next day after his friends leave, he starts cleaning his room religiously and has kept it clean ever since. Why? Because he was embarassed by one of his friends comments on his room.

        So simple. I wish I had thought of it earlier. I guess

    • by Monoman ( 8745 )

      Actually it sounds like the warehouse storage is in a constant state of defrag and deliberately without full file reorder.

  • by wvmarle ( 1070040 ) on Friday November 30, 2012 @04:15AM (#42139393)

    May be nice if that site works with the latest Firefox, too... been a while since I had an issue with a site just not working.

    • by gagol ( 583737 )
      Or chromium for that matter. Now it has "business" in its name, developers are probably restricted to ie6 because of their intranet ;-)
    • by temcat ( 873475 )

      Doesn't work for me in Firefox 16.0.2, but works in Opera 12.10.

    • by Skynyrd ( 25155 )

      Since is has a video clip that starts playing automatically, I wasn't there long enough to know that it wouldn't work with Firefox.

  • ADHD girl (Score:5, Funny)

    by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Friday November 30, 2012 @04:16AM (#42139395)

    My room is a disaster. My bed isn't made, nobody can find anything in here but me, and I have a couple bras right now hanging on the lamp to dry because there's nowhere else to put them. According to this article, I should be a major, successful retail vendor. So if that's true, instead of expecting me to be a billionaire or the President, my mom keeps telling me that at this point, she'd be happy if I'd just breed?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 30, 2012 @04:18AM (#42139403)

    If you've ever worked at Wallmart or I guess any of the other major supermarkets, they do the same thing. Store stuff whereever and track where it is. So it might be organized on the computer, but in the storerooms its real-world location bears no relation to it's computerized structure.

    Again for the same reason, seasonality and holidays etc. mean the sales are not constants and stocks of different items vary, and with small space at the supermarket for storage, it doesn't make sense to dedicate empty space to storing *potential* stuff.

    But hey, perhaps Bezo's plans to patent it, like one click ordering. So he's pretending it's a new thing.

  • So, Amazon is refusing to invest in robots to do this repetitive work? Instead, they employ humans to perform mind-numbing running all over the place to fetch products and fill shipping boxes. Don't you think a company of Amazon's size should spend some of those billions on some modern industrial robots so that the humans can get a rest?
    • Re:Humans? (Score:5, Informative)

      by TheLink ( 130905 ) on Friday November 30, 2012 @04:51AM (#42139519) Journal
      Not true. They bought Kiva. It probably takes a while before they work out the changes needed and roll that out.

      As for humans getting rest, in many countries if you end up without a job and are not in the "ruling caste" the rest of the people don't seem to think you deserve to get any $$$$ for "resting" aka "doing nothing productive".

      Careful for what you ask for, you may get it.
    • 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 uncqual ( 836337 )
        (Replying to my own post - I know, poor form!)

        And, of course, Amazon eventually acquired Kiva which is a strong hint that what I said in my post is likely to be their goal.
      • by DarkOx ( 621550 )

        Easy, get rid of the earned income tax credit and make failure to file and or pay a capital crime for persons over 18. We have just have them all lined up an shot on April 16th. It will even broaden the base!

        Seriously though it is a real problem and there is a total leadership vacuum around the issue. The whole "winning the future" thing misses the point. We can invest all we want in education but there is still going to be an ever growing segment of the population who simply lack the innate talent to b

      • Re:Humans? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by SirGarlon ( 845873 ) on Friday November 30, 2012 @09:32AM (#42140697)

        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.

        Well, the problem of "masses" is taking care of itself [wikipedia.org]. No need for government policy there; market forces are driving population growth down.

        As to the "IQ under 110," there are lots of productive and necessary jobs that can't easily be automated. It's going to be a long time before a robot can cook a gourmet meal or repair a leaky faucet or give me a good haircut.

        One doesn't need to be educated or even terribly smart to be a productive member of society. One just needs a work ethic.

        • Assembling thousands of identical servings or performing thousands of haircuts to certain specifications seem like great jobs for robots. And it took a plumber 3 calls to repair a problematic faucet in my bathtub, a hugely inefficient process, so clearly a standard robot-swappable module should be developed. Certainly if work ethic is what matters, robot is your man!
      • by Toze ( 1668155 )

        Someone hasn't been paying attention to demographics over time; first-world nations have negative birth rates (I think that's the term; replacement rates lower than 1:1). Third-world nations that get a boost in living conditions have slowing birth rates (usually takes a generation and change for birth rate reduction to catch up with infant mortality reduction, iirc). America and Canada and suchlike have population growth primarily from immigration, but they need to keep importing immigrants because the chil

    • >Don't you think a company of Amazon's size should spend some of those billions on some modern industrial robots so that the humans can get a rest?

      How many humans whose last job was "stacked boxes in a wharehouse" would be able to feed themselves and their families if they did that ?

      It may or may not make business sense - but pretending that mass layoffs is somehow humanitarian is a new level of low.

    • by DarkOx ( 621550 )

      No, because then you'd be angry at them for killing jobs. Everyone knows that big companies will be vilified no matter what they do. So it really only makes sense for them to do whatever is most economical.

      If the general public actually had the intellect to rival our poo flinging primate cousins; than maybe there would be hope for corporate responsibility but as it stands companies like Amazon and lately even Google can't be win in the court of public opinion no matter what they do so they may as well jus

    • I'm all for using technology to replace people in dangerous, hard, boring and/or repetitive work.
      Humans should be prepared by their parents, and society, to be able to earn a decent living in fulfilling roles.


      Many of them, sadly, are not. Working in a warehouse is hard, (I've done it), but at least you're inside, and it's better to have a job than not have one.
      Not just from a financial aspect, but more importantly from a social one.

      Keep the robots for the really dangerous stuff, and keep job opportuniti

  • We could learn off Amazon for our own computer file systems. A metadata/database filesystem where everything is stored all in one folder (rather than organized into directories) would save everyone so much time. The barcode would be replaced by 'tags' or metadata. Popular and recent tags could be accessible via a dropdown. Hunting for files, reorganization, deciding where to store files, becomes suddenly much easier.

    More info:
    http://www.skytopia.com/project/articles/filesystem.html [skytopia.com]
    http://fishbowl.pasti [pastiche.org]
    • Why do that, when you can have an organized directory structure and searchable file tags [wikipedia.org]? The two aren't mutually exclusive, you know.

      • by Twinbee ( 767046 )
        As others have said before, you can emulate folders with a metadata system anyway. Having actual folders on TOP of that is a kludge.

        Besides that minor issue, Microsoft isn't exactly encouraging people to use virtual folders (and do third-party programs allow you to save metadata when saving files?). Does it utilize a realtime filterable window like Everything [voidtools.com], where you can search for something in an instant based on the metadata they contain? I very much doubt it. That's a vital part of the tech if a me
        • by zyzko ( 6739 )

          Well, the company I work for does just that (I won't mention the name but it is easy enough to find...) minus the realtime filtering (we kind of have that on some properties but not the way Everything does it, at least not yet) - you have to click the search button to get filtered results (it searches metadata and file contents, quick search) or you can build your own search down to the very finest specification and these can be saved as views, and everything (including permissions!) are driven by the metad

          • by Twinbee ( 767046 )
            Sounds great. Did your company build the filesystem or did you get it off the shelf?
            • by zyzko ( 6739 )

              It is completely in-house project. We have various parts that are off the self components in the product like OCR and a few other pieces but the filesystem stuff is 100% our code.

    • Don't we have something called the world wide web that's a bit like that now?

    • It works for email. I get rather a lot of it and I have stopped filing it in neat little folders; instead all mail goes into an "archive" folder. Some time management methods like GTD recommend this: do not waste too much time on filing stuff, just throw it on the pile and rely on search to find it later.
  • ... yeah, real nice. (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Amazon warehouse jobs push workers to physical limit

    I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave

  • 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.

    • by wvmarle ( 1070040 ) on Friday November 30, 2012 @05:19AM (#42139629)

      It's likely mostly the physical skill of opening a wrapper and taking a book out of it. Or worse, some odd shaped item. That's stuck in the tight wrapper.

      The first (and only photo visible to me) on that that site showed a bunch of shipping pallets aligned haphazardly with cartons stacked on top of them. Assuming one item per pallet, you go find the pallet (easy), then find which carton is currently open already (harder), then manouvre your arms and hands to take an item out of the carton (that's the tough one - especially the getting your fingers around it part), and place it in your shopping trolley or whatever they use there (easy again).

      Finding and scanning bar codes may also be tricky, as they're likely not on fixed locations.

      Current robots work where a blind man could work. They are as good as blind, after all. And need to know exactly where to find a product, and how to take one and only one. That's not easy with all those odd shaped, and constantly changing products.

      • by Nimey ( 114278 )

        The wrapper thing is laughably easy to solve: Amazon would simply have to tell their suppliers that if they don't pack stuff in a standardized box they won't buy from them.

        • by wvmarle ( 1070040 ) on Friday November 30, 2012 @11:16AM (#42141615)

          There is a simple reason everything comes in different sized cartons: all products are different size. Outer and inner cartons must be full and not leave any room for a product to move around in it, or it would be damaged in transport. So unless you standardise the size of all your products, that's not going to work.

          Standardising carton sizes would result in having to add heaps of filler material (adds cost: material and labour) and wasting space in trucks and shipping containers (adds more cost: less payload per job). That filler material will also mess up your robotics seriously - you still don't know where your product really is, and have more stuff to dig through.

          Really, your "laughably easy" solution is just not a solution. Otherwise it would have been done already, look at other parts of transport: the Euro pallet has a size that makes them fit perfectly in rail road cars. Trucks are now being built to fit Euro pallets perfectly. And as much as possible, cartons are made to fit those pallets perfectly. For overseas transport, a 40' shipping container fits twenty standard pallets (1x1.2m) with very little room to spare. And manufacturers will make sure that their cartons stay as close as possible within those measurements. Big bags have a 1x1m footprint, and while their height may vary, the regular heights allow them to be stacked two or three on top of each other for a perfect fit.

          • by Nimey ( 114278 )

            I'm not suggesting that there should be a single standard carton; rather, that there be a small number of standard sizes much as Amazon does with the cardboard boxes they deliver things in.

            Good point about filler material, though, since you're likely to still have some gap.

    • They sure seem to be treating humans as robots [motherjones.com] already. And yes, the humans are cheaper to operate.

  • 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...

    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 30, 2012 @06:23AM (#42139853)

      The reason you have to go to a particular bin is that the company likely runs a FIFO inventory system, so they want you to pick the oldest items first. There are various good reasons to do this (we do it too in normal manufacturing inventory).

    • by necro81 ( 917438 )
      "Shortest Route" algorithms, such as the traveling salesman problem [wikipedia.org], are extremely difficult. Sometimes humans can intuit a better solution, but only when the number of spots to hit is small. For a warehouse with millions of items not already organized, it's impossible for a human. The best you can hope for without throwing using every computer on the planet is an approximate solution, which again for large datasets isn't really guaranteed to be all that good.
      • 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.

      • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

        It also ignores FIFO, if you are just going for the closest product. Amazon does not want to have customers returning products because they have clearly sat in a warehouse for years.

      • There are in the scientific literature published algorithms that produce approximate results well in the "good enough" range, 2-5% larger than optimal, to be worthwhile. For large and small datasets, with millions of points.

        Furthermore, it doesn't matter that the warehouse has millions of items, the complexity of the problem depends only on the size of the order, or the sizes of how many orders can be fit in your rolly bin.

    • Sounds like what they might need is a way for the picker to override the computer route if he knows a better one. Just scan the item and the system adapts. Maybe even track how well each picker improves the computer route and make an incentive. Could be interesting to see the results.
      • by Hulfs ( 588819 ) on Friday November 30, 2012 @11:18AM (#42141659)
        As someone who spent some time several years ago developing a picking algorithm for plumbing / electrical warehouses, there's generally much more to it than just a simple scanning / shortest path equation. You'll generally want to make sure you're going through your older stock first so you don't end up with old, unsellable stock, sometimes you want to actually clear out bins that have only a few items in them to make room for more stock, and many more things. So, just because you may walk by a few bins that have your item in it already doesn't mean the algorithm is dumb (though it very well may mean that), it may mean that those who set up the system assigned higher value to other picking / service priorities than just pick speed.
  • by smittyoneeach ( 243267 ) * on Friday November 30, 2012 @05:54AM (#42139749) Homepage Journal
    Amazon announces that, after a century of tweaking about, they have arrived at a self-replicating fulfillment warehouse system.
    Everything is on 23 pairs of rows. The tips of the 23 rows of two warehouses break off intermittently, and circulate freely on the roadways disguised as traffic.
    If any two sets of 23 show up in a fulfillment center parking lot and collide, a new fulfillment center is 'conceived', and 'gestates' for a few seasons before making a the shortest possible journey to a new location, where it starts doin' its thang'. A shocking amount of the row storage is metadata, such that a warehouse query fails outright or returns a product at roughly ludicrous speed. "Yeah, it's kind of a b-tree on Brawndo," said Dr. Joey "TT" Torvalds-Tridgell, the 800lb Brain of Amazon.
    In other news, Walmart President Sanger is seeking to legalize the abortion of this burgeoning threat, saying that wanton murder, too, is a form of capitalism.
  • by ShooterNeo ( 555040 ) on Friday November 30, 2012 @06:00AM (#42139769)

    Since there's no organizational scheme, I assume that the human workers have to be told turn by turn where to go? That for anything but an item that they picked up recently, a human worker would need to be told where exactly to go to pick up the nearest item X. And even if one of the human workers did remember the last place they saw X, that spot probably is not the closest instance of X. This kind of storage scheme means that the human workers are simply meat waldos serving the computer software that runs the place.

    • by cripkd ( 709136 )
      And? Human, you make it sound as if you're not happy with your future role!
    • 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.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      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.

    • by DarkOx ( 621550 )

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

      Before that they simply served the warehouse manager with his ledger. I think you over stating impact this has on the job role of they typical picker.

  • OMG, so THIS is the real secret of Amazon's success, and now it's out? I've just bought Nile.com so watch out Bezos!
  • Chaos was the cool thing back in the 90s, amirite?

  • They've been doing "random shelving" of their items since their very first fulfillment center that wasn't Jeff Bezos's garage. It isn't particularly new, revolutionary, or a big secret.

  • by agentgonzo ( 1026204 ) on Friday November 30, 2012 @07:49AM (#42140241)
    "This system is the true key to Amazon.com's success in online retail". That, and not paying any tax.
  • 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.

    • I have seen warehouses where the first step in the shipping station is a verification of the contents, including a picture. I guess Amazon thinks this step is too expensive for what it's worth?

  • I know Amazon has take some great strikes in the shipping aspect of prime. They have warehouses just for staging then they have warehouses all around the world the Prime Shipping is great but it was a major under taking in the fulfillment center part of there operation.
  • So Amazon storage works as a flash drive.

  • by aitikin ( 909209 ) on Friday November 30, 2012 @08:54AM (#42140529)
    But when you start adding foodstuffs and chemicals, you'll run into complications and be forced to keep them separate by legal regulation. That's probably part of the reason Amazon's so slow/not getting into foodstuffs.
    • by ediron2 ( 246908 )

      No, that's not really that hard.

      A chaotic system works fine; just add the restrictions capability. For example, the programmers/operations engineers involved get told: Foodstuffs can't be next to potential toxins. A flag is added (let's call it FDA1) across the board to all foodstuffs, another to the things they can't be near (FDA2). Then, the chaotic system declares a region of the warehouse FDA1-ok and another FDA2-ok. Takes a split-second more to allocate a new bin, including having built-in 'grow re

  • Link to photos (Score:4, Informative)

    by pancake_lover ( 310091 ) on Friday November 30, 2012 @08:55AM (#42140535)

    The article slideshow isn[t working for me. Some photos from an Amazon warehouse were posted on reddit the other day. Here are those photos: http://imgur.com/a/q1WIO [imgur.com].

  • I just read this article about how GAP and Zappos are using Kiva robots in their warehouses which makes a nice contrast. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/01/retailrobots/ [wired.com]

    As far as I can tell the Kiva warehouses could probably be said to use some form of cahotic storage too. The advantages they cite to using robots are: much higher productivity, less walking for employees, safer and more ergonomic environment, less 'shrinkage' (theft) due to most of the warehouse being robot-only, lower power usage d

  • by SETY ( 46845 ) on Friday November 30, 2012 @10:31AM (#42141119)

The world is coming to an end--save your buffers!