The Magic of Amazon’s Modern Day Shipping

During my research into how drones can disrupt the package delivery industry I first wanted to ground myself in the process of how Amazon ships packages today. My expectations going into it were that there are many people involved in a process that is archaic and very manual. What I discovered is a logistical system that is technologically advanced far beyond what I had initially thought. I felt it was important to share some of the findings that were not able to make it into my presentation due to time restrictions. If you are like me, you may have a greater appreciation of how complex and innovative the systems are that get our packages from point A to point B.

For a package to make its way across the country or world it will pass through a network of interconnected boats, ships and vehicles. Amazon is a particularly powerful example of just how large this system can be. Amazon has about 300 semi-trucks, 20,000 regular trucks, 50 planes and also utilizes cargo ships that go between China and the United States. This allows the company to control the entire process of shipping if it chooses. However, due to the volume of packages that Amazon must move, they often contract out to third parties to assist with some deliveries.

Other companies like UPS and FedEx also have similar networks that they rely on to ship packages across the country and world. What separates Amazon from the pack is how they can quickly move product by using technology in their fulfillment and sorting centers. Amazon has over 200,000 total robots in use throughout their warehouses. That number has grown quickly from 2012 when Amazon bought robotics company Kiva Systems for $775M. Kiva was the first company to introduce robots that could assist with moving products within warehouses and had many major customers like Walgreens, Staples, and GAP. When Amazon purchased Kiva, they decided their robots were too important to allow these competitors to benefit from them and they actually removed the robots from circulation. Amazon would go on to incorporate Kiva into their Amazon Robotics unit, which has grown into becoming the powerhouse for their fulfillment and sorting centers.

The Kiva robot used by Amazon in their warehouses

The way the robots have become integrated into the warehouses is truly fascinating. In the fulfillment centers, where packages are first put together, the robots play a key role in simplifying the activities of the “stowers” and “pickers”. The stowers put items on the shelves when they come into the warehouse from a retailer and the pickers retrieve items from the shelves when they are purchased by a customer. These workers would often walk 10 to 20 miles per day as they performed their duties because the fulfillment centers are so large (on average 800,000 square feet). The robots can now bring the shelves over to the workers who are stationary and do not have put the continuous strain on their bodies.

In the sorting centers, where the packages are routed to their final destination, the robots are essential in moving packages within the warehouse system. When packages are first brought to a local sorting center, a human will scan each barcode by hand. The shipment then needs to make its way to the correct chutes that are designated for its specific zip code. Once the package goes down the chute, it needs to be bundled together appropriately by weight and placed on a delivery truck. This is a multistep process that has many touchpoints. Luckily the robots help with many of these tasks. Once the human has scanned the bar code, the robot will take the package and bring it to the correct chutes. It will know which chutes have already received many packages and place it in the one that can handle the weight of the current item. It does this all while working in unison with the hundreds of other robots who are doing the same task. It is a logistical marvel that is enabled by the rapid advances of technology.

The chutes at sorting centers are where packages get loaded to trucks for their final destination

There is no doubt that the robots within the Amazon warehouses have had significant positive impacts for both the company and employees. The marathons that the pickers and stowers in the fulfillment centers had to walk each day have been drastically reduced. The wear and tear on workers in the sorting centers has significantly decreased as well because they no longer have to walk to the chutes to drop off the packages. The chutes also have even distributions of weight when they are bundled together and put on trucks by the humans, which makes their job easier. However, it is reasonable to ask the question of at what point are humans no longer going to be necessary within the Amazon warehouses?

The answer to that question is unknown, but it is more likely a matter of when it will happen, not if it will happen. The most important task that humans do in this process is physically pick up and move items to and from the shelves. This is an activity that is hard to replicate in a robot due to the varying size, weights and shapes that products come in. Jeff Bezos did, however, predict that the solution for that issue could come within the next decade. The trajectory of technological developments would seem to indicate that the majority of activities performed by humans in the warehouses could be performed by robots within our lifetimes.

With about 1.2 million employees worldwide that work for Amazon, this will obviously cause a seismic shift in the job market. The encouraging news is that Amazon has taken steps to preserve their workforce and help them become even more important to the company. They have pledged to “upskill” 100,000 workers to help them develop the skills needed to make an impact in the future at Amazon. I think this continued support of lower-skilled workers is important because they have played an important role in getting the company to where it is now. They deserve to be invested in as they have given their time and energy towards setting the company up for success. After learning more about how complex the process is through the combination of human and robotic efforts, I now hold a greater respect for how each plays a crucial role in getting my package to me so quickly.

7 comments

  1. abigailholler1 · ·

    The logistical challenges that amazon has overcome are truly amazing, truly impressive to see the strides they’ve made on robot automation in just a decade, since acquiring Kiva in 2012. One element of amazon’s supply chain strategy that continues to amaze me: their ability to use different solutions for different needs within their logistics model. The warehouses utilize robotic technologies, but in delivery they use ‘last mile’ team while they work through the drone delivery options we learned about in your presentation a few weeks ago. Their agility in implementing different technologies throughout their supply chain is definitely part of their competitive advantage.

  2. ritellryan · ·

    It is impressive the magnitude of what Amazon sends out each and everyday I am not surprised at how sophisticated their logistics model is. That said, not only do I think about the first order cost savings and the employee wear and tear, but also think about the savings on workers comp in terms of lifting heavy boxes, fewer slip/fall claims, and reduced liabilities and insurance premiums as well. This saves not only Amazon, but allows doctors more capacity to focus on treating patients with more complex conditions.

    I also like the idea of upskilling a portion of their workforce (I do find it notable the article you linked to said US workers, not sure if it is because that is where the majority of the workforce is, or because it is more notable to do it in the US given how there is almost no choice in many of the European countries). There are probably many hard working people in the distribution centers that
    if given an opportunity for more thought leadership/white collar work, they would be more thqan capable, especially coming from the front lines. By keeping the most promising talent and training them to succeed for Amazon of the future, they will also build loyalty and employee morale even as some roles go away.

  3. kellywwbcedu · ·

    First off, great job! This is such an interesting topic and only the beginning of widespread drone use! It is amazing to see how society is progressing and adapting, and Amazon seems to always be on the forefront of that! Amazon seems to have grown so quickly by efficiently acquiring the right companies and Kiva Systems is a great example of that. It seems that humans are now coworkers with drones and robots in these Amazon warehouse and I’m not sure where that falls on the cool/creepy scale for me. It will be interesting to monitor if the drones phase out humans in these warehouses and how that effects the overall number of jobs for humans, as you mentioned Amazon has pledged to upscale 100,000 workers for new jobs.

  4. I have to Echo Kelly’s sentiments. Extremely interesting topic and something that I think more companies should be thinking about as they automate positions within the company. It would be interesting to understand how Amazon is approaching the upscaling. Are they putting warehouse workers through an extensive job shadowing program? Is it more of a corporate coursera model? What types of roles is Amazon creating for these individuals? I’m sure some of this is being built and there are applicable use cases but it would be nice to see what type of placement would come out of this so that there can be a model for other companies to follow.

  5. olivia_levy8 · ·

    I agree that I now have a lot more insight and respect for the process behind receiving an Amazon package. It is easy to pick up a package from the front door and not even think about how it got from point A to point B, especially at the speed of Amazon Prime. This post reminds me of points made in the reading from our studies of ML & AI from, “Expanding AI’s Impact with Organizational Learning”, in which they go into detail in the ways that AI and humans are “Better Together”, and how they interact to get the tasks done.

    I think that Amazon is still ways away from a solution, and agree with Bezos that it may be within a decade. I applaud their dedication to advancing technology but also their promise to upskill workers, because as mentioned, they work hard everyday to get Amazon to where they are. I don’t believe these robots will take their jobs, rather if Amazon is dedicated to upskilling them as promised, they can fill in new roles that may come about with the implementation of more AI.

  6. Nice post. I confess that I am amazed by Amazon’s logistics. It’s all very impressive.

  7. AndraeAllen · ·

    Awesome post! I just read how the FAA plans to enforce stricter rules on the operation of consumer operated drones. The plan is to mandate that drones be equipped with Remote ID technology. Remote identification (Remote ID) requires identification of drones in flight as well as the location of their control stations or takeoff point. I try not to be a conspiracy theorist but part of me wonders if this more for keeping the skies less occupied by drones bought at walmart and more so to keep the skies clear for commercial purposes such as law enforcement and package deliveries. I really enjoyed the information you presented.

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