What if your business had a market cap greater than $1 trillion? Amazon does (at the time of this article) but what technology does Amazon use to get there? Is it the robots, the smart sensors, conveyor belts or something else? All of these items play an integral role in how Amazon leverages technology to allocate, sort, pick, pack, and ship product to you directly. The goal is for you to come away with a few action items that will make it easy to see what your own next step is in the technology journey as a wholesaler or retailer.
Since this topic can cover a wide range of applications, it’ll be broken down into small subsections. This should make it easier. Then I’ll provide actionable outcomes you can take along each step. Sound good? Let’s get started.
What Technology Does Amazon Use for Inbound Product?
This one is not surprising. Each truck who pulls up to an Amazon fulfillment center location is being told by the app the time, location & which bay to go to. The coordination here goes back to making the drop off times the most efficient they can be, while also keeping yard congestion to a minimum. This also has to do with the arrangement of the “slides” within the warehouse. Each slide is pre-determined to go to a given location, or to be a inbound shipping lane. A truck cannot pull up to the Houston “slide” with a load of inbound cargo, so this is mitigated here to prevent further backups up-stream.
The first step after a truck is pulled up to an unloading bay, is to get the product off the truck and into pallets. You’d think Amazon might have this more automated. What technology does Amazon use for unloading the product from a truck? Hands and an expandable conveyor system. Most trucks are loaded with individual product stacked floor to ceiling. Workers will unload the truck, and package it up onto pallets. From the pallet, either an elevator or robotic arm will raise the pallet of “randomized” inventory to an unloading station. The randomized aspect is important because it allows any product to be placed in any bin. These pallets are placed at the head of each product check-in station so it can be scanned to a pod.
Once the pallet comes to the staging area, each individual box is loaded on to a rack, from which it is opened and picked from. These products are still inbound remember. Each box contains multiple individual packs of whatever the contents. A person at each station will then scan the box, then scan an item in, and assign it a spot on the pod. Below is an image to show this. This process once (and still does) used a hand scanner. What technology does Amazon use for the most recent installations? They are now using their Amazon Go technology. This will detect the product, scan the barcode from far away, and detect the location on the pod where the product is stored. This eliminates one of the steps of scanning the pod location before placing.
What Technology Does Amazon Use For Storing Product?
You’ll notice a recurring theme here, robots. From the moment product comes into the warehouse, everything is moved on either floor robots, conveyor belts, or elevators. In the first stage, the product is loaded into the pods, which are carried on top of a robot. These robots then take the product to a pre-programmed location within the floor. Each robot can only move from one QR code on the floor to the next. So, when two encounter each other, one pauses because it can’t see the QR code, while the other passes. This process is entirely automated. It’s automated to the point where no person is allowed within the robotic space without a special vest. This vest uses either Bluetooth to make them go around.
When orders come in from Amazon, they are first routed to the most efficient location. Amazon has 75 fulfillment centers and 25 sortation facilities across the country. Each order is routed to the closest location with available product.
Once that order is sent to the facility, it shows up on a computer next to a picking station. Robots within the warehouse are given the order to come to a picking station at the time that order comes through. The robot shows the appropriate side of the pod, and the product is grabbed, scanned, and placed in a fulfillment bin to be packed and shipped.
It should be noted, this process is heavily reliant on computer routing systems. They must know where the most efficient path for the product to the customer is. Each order is tracked to a warehouse based on it’s location, and the location of the customer then presented to a picker. The picker will pull it from the pod and send it to the packing station.
Between getting an order from the picking station to packing, each product is loaded into a yellow bin. This bin travels on a conveyor belt, and based on if the order is to be combined with other product or not, it it sent to singles, or multi-pack areas in the warehouse. For a recent Amazon fulfillment center tour I went on, the 850,00 sq. ft. warehouse had 11 miles of conveyor belts.
What Technology Does Amazon Use In Packing Product?
This stage of Amazon’s fulfillment process is manual, yet there are elements of computer power which help to know which bin handled which product. The orders can be routed to any packing station after being distinguished between a single order or a multi-order.
The bins are staged along long conveyor belts, with packing stations on both sides. An employee will grab a bin, then they will pull the product and scan it. The scanner has a predetermined box size and shipping tape size which the product is loaded into. Each box is then provided a barcode label for the outside. This carries all the information of the inner contents of a box. What’s important to keep in mind is Amazon’s randomized fulfillment method. At any moment a product or packaged product can be picked up and scanned, and they will know where it’s headed or where it should go back to.
Package Scanners and Labels
At this stage a product has been picked, packed in a box, and sent back on a conveyor belt. The product will get routed through a scale, then scanned (remember that barcode on the outside of the box?) and finally through a pre-printed label which is “blow” on from a printer. Beyond this step, everything s controlled on a series of conveyor belts.
Out the Door
Product that has been picked, packed, and applied a shipping label is now routed again to the various exit points. Each product has a shipping label now. This shipping label is scanned on the way down the conveyor belt. Amazon set’s up a variety of slots which packages can be deposited to. Each slot corresponds with a shipping location. When the product comes down the conveyor belt with a shipping label corresponding to the location it goes, the conveyor belt “kicks” it into that slot. From there the product is manually loaded into a truck and driven to it’s final or semi-final destination.
In a nutshell, that’s what technology Amazon uses in the mega empire. There are numerous things going on behind the scenes, but the process is pretty simple. Get the product in, limit movement of people, let robots move everything.
Follow this general framework with your wholesale business and you’ll be in good company. Obviously, the most important thing here is the systems and hardware in place to make it happen. If you are in the position to do so, you’ll likely need some technology. A partner we work with is Precision Warehouse Design. On the technology end, check out Distribution Hub, which enables you to move the product entirely via mobile WMS system. Feel free to reach out to a firstname.lastname@example.org for any questions you may have on this article.
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