How Amazon’s robot warehouses swing into action the moment you press ‘buy’

If you’re like us, you might be a little too dependent on Amazon’s “place your order” button.

Whether shopping for wireless earbuds or paper towels, tap a few buttons on your device (or use your voice if you have an Amazon Alexa device), and a couple days later, viola! Those sweet kicks you ordered are sitting in your closet acting like they have always been there.

So, how does Amazon get us our stuff so quickly?

Since Amazon offers tours of their fulfillment centers (it’s open to the public, not just media) we decided to get a behind-the-scenes look at the entire process.

What did we learn? All the stuff that happens between the time you click “buy” and when your item is loaded onto the truck for delivery is even faster, cooler, and more efficient than we thought it would be.

Warehouse, or miniature city?

Remember that scene at the end of Indiana Jones’ Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the Ark of the Covenant is put into a warehouse, and the camera pans farther and farther out to show the vast space, making it clear that the Ark would likely be lost forever? We got that feeling when we saw Amazon’s endless “library” of inventory that is stored at the 855,000-square-foot fulfillment center in Kent, Washington.

This is just one of Amazon’s more than 100 fulfillment centers of similar size across the country.

Except, instead of items being lost, Amazon has a very efficient way of keeping track of, finding, and delivering the stuff you order.

The giant warehouse we toured felt like a miniature city, with boxes of stuff traveling on crisscrossing highways of conveyor belts — commuters moving from station to station.

The first thing you see after stepping through the gates at the Kent fulfillment center is a carefully and artfully constructed 12-foot-tall archway made of — what else? — Amazon shipping boxes.

To the left of the archway sits a cardboard model of the Seattle Space Needle. It’s a nod to the online giant’s beginnings in the Emerald City and to the fact that this fulfillment center, despite being only a couple years old, is a stone’s throw from Amazon’s world headquarters.

Dan Baker/Digital Trends

The arch and Space Needle won’t hold your attention for too long, however. The massive, multi-level facility is full of eye-popping things to gawk at, like high-speed conveyor belts whizzing above and in front of you, thousands of giant vacuum-like robots methodically pushing shelves of products around, and twisty slides that look like they belong on a playground but are actually for the packages to slide down and meet the trucks they’ll be loaded on for delivery.

It’s a breathtaking, dizzying sight to behold, and is even more impressive when you consider that this is only one of Amazon’s more than 100 fulfillment centers of similar size across the country (more are being built as we speak). Worldwide, the online giant has more than 150 of these centers with similar workflow setups.

“We’ve definitely found a way to make the system very efficient,” Lindsay Campbell, Amazon’s public relations manager for robotics, told Digital Trends.

Bought to boxed in less than an hour

You need some toothpaste. You hit the buy button. Now what? Well, let’s say you live in Minnesota. Your toothpaste could be coming from your nearest Midwest fulfillment center, or, depending on what brand or product you ordered, could be coming from a facility in Washington state or New York. Amazon’s algorithms determine where to draw from depending on proximity and availability of the item you chose.

“Our robotic centers are our most efficient and have the most associates in them.”

Once the location of the toothpaste is determined, the fulfillment center assigned to fulfill the order springs to action. At the Kent facility, robots that look like giant vacuums called “drive units” are sent to retrieve your toothpaste off a yellow “pod” that resembles an approximately 15-foot tall shelf, from the “library” of stuff ranging from shampoo to smart locks.

The robots drive underneath the pod and carefully lift it, then follow guided lines on the floor of the library to systematically move the pods. It’s mesmerizing — and a bit like a symphony — to watch the dozens and dozens of drive units moving in large square patterns to get to human “pickers” and avoid hitting each other.

“Our robotic centers are our most efficient and have the most associates in them,” said Lauren Lynch, spokesperson for Amazon, who led us on the tour. “The drive units are great dancers, they can turn around, and move, and make sure they’re not bumping into things around them.”

At the Kent facility there are more than 6,000 drive units, 60,000 pods, and more than 3,000 employees. A robot can move five feet per second and can carry up to 1,250 pounds. Worldwide, there are about 100,000 of these things moving inventory around.

The drive units deliver the pods to specified stations, and that’s when the humans take over the process for a minute. Amazon associates called “pickers,” reading from a computer screen, select your toothpaste from the pod, scan it, and put it into a tote that resembles a small recycle bin. The tote with your toothpaste is then placed on a conveyor belt, which whizzes the product around the center and down to the packing station.

The conveyor belts move throughout the fulfillment center, with some moving extremely fast and some inching along slowly. It all depends on how far the product needs to go, said Brian Mangano, community specialist for the Kent fulfillment center. If the product is making its way to the other side of the facility, for example, expect it to be on an express highway conveyor belt. If it’s just moving a few blocks in fulfillment city, it’ll be on a residential belt.

amazon warehouse tour fulfillment conveyer getty
Mark Makela / Stringer / Getty Images

Back to your toothpaste. It travels via the tote downhill to the packers, who grab it off a conveyor belt, scan the item, and then begin boxing it. A computer at the station tells the packer which box to choose and automatically dispenses the correct amount of packaging tape. Most packers can box an item in mere seconds.

Off your toothpaste goes again, this time in a box and on a different conveyor belt, which takes the package through a machine that can only be described as a giant stamping device. The machine scans the item, then instantaneously prints out the correct address label and attaches it to the package. Your toothpaste, now boxed and labeled with your address, is placed on another conveyor belt, which uses “shoes” to push packages down the correct twisty slide. Humans take over again, loading the boxes onto forklifts and trucks. Your toothpaste is on its way to you.

So, how long does the whole process take from bought to boxed and loaded?

“It can be less than 30 minutes,” Mangano said.

Catch that teddy bear!

Just exactly how fast are these conveyor belts traveling? Lynch did not give a miles-per-hour stat, but an example. For fun, Amazon once put GoPro cameras into the totes to film the items inside as they wind around the center’s sprawling conveyor belt highways. But the problem they had was trying to retrieve the totes with the cameras; unless they bring the entire highway system to a halt, it was extremely difficult.

Amazon once put GoPro cameras into the totes to film the items inside as they wind around the center’s sprawling conveyor belt highways.

Another time, they put a teddy bear in a tote just to see how fast it would travel from one side of the facility to another. It’s unclear whether the bear was ever found.

Amazon promises that the stuff you order will not end up like that teddy bear.

“From the time an order comes in to the time it’s on the truck is an efficient, quick process,” Lynch said.

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