Behind the Scenes: An Inside Look at Amazon’s Futuristic Distribution System

by Melissa Burns

Behind the Scenes: An Inside Look at Amazon's Futuristic Distribution System

Ever since Ford revolutionized auto production by implementing the assembly line in 1913, manufacturing has come a long way. One of the current innovations taking place pertains to distribution. With an extremely demanding multinational client base and fierce competition from rivals, fast and efficient distribution is becoming one of the greatest competitive advantages for a company. People do not want slow delivery times and will not tolerate errors or delays.

The distribution industry has embraced various forms of technology and software systems to streamline processes, making them faster while minimizing errors. Warehouse management software, distribution software, and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems have been in use for some time now.

Apart from the software, most modern distribution centers rely on various machines, conveyor belts, robotics and other mechanization and technologies to optimize their tasks. None have come close to the level of automation that Amazon has achieved.

Amazon Fulfilment Centers

Given the millions of products they must distribute at lightning speed to all parts of the world, the company has had no choice but to pioneer advanced distribution techniques. No modern warehouse is complete without a state-of-the-art ERP distribution software to keep communications and information flowing between various stakeholders while streamlined processes keep the systems running. Employees can then help retrieve, bundle, pack, and ship products at incredible speed.

Their distribution—or fulfillment centers, as they call them—are a miracle of human-machine collaboration. Amazon has over 70 in the United States and more than 150 worldwide. Some are still run primarily by humans with some help from technology. Others are highly sophisticated, with robots and people working side by side, each contributing their respective strengths. They are constantly growing and evolving.

Amazon Distribution Robotics

Amazon had been experimenting with a variety of robotics and automated, mechanized processes in their fulfillment centers for years. They were particularly taken with the compact orange Kiva robots. They liked them so much that, in true Amazon style, the retailer bought the company in 2012.

Wanting to retain the competitive advantage, they do not sell the robots to any other companies; they are for Amazon’s exclusive use. Other large distribution centers are left scrambling to find suppliers to provide similar technologies.

While the staff numbers at Amazon are increasing at a rapid pace, so too are their robots. At last count, there were over 45,000 and counting. At the moment, the Kivas work alongside the human warehouse staff. These robots, along with other automated technologies, assist in locating and transporting products, packaging, addressing and sending them to the appropriate distribution providers.

Humans are still very much in demand as Amazon continues to expand exponentially, just as people are still better are still better at picking the products off the shelves and certain other steps along the way. The robots, for now, have difficulty with the fine manipulation required on the smaller items. With improvements in computer chips, smarter algorithms, and upgraded sensors, the machines are becoming more accurate, safer, cheaper and able to learn new tasks in less time.

Robots are continually evolving and will soon be more efficient than their human colleagues who will eventually be there simply to fix glitches in the workflow. How soon this will happen is anyone’s guess. Ultimately, they will improve accuracy, speed, and productivity per square foot of warehouse space.

For now, robots speed the process up by working closely with humans and saving them the several miles each would walk on a typical day getting inventory from one part of the center to the next. As the stock is removed from the mobile shelving systems, some restock them with precision while their fellow machines take the ordered items in yellow and black crates to be packaged and sent off.

The shelves are robotic and make maximum use of space. As shelves empty, they either move over to a packer or the products come to the empty shelf by a robot.

Into the Future

The future of these and other distribution centers will, for the foreseeable future, always have a place for people to work alongside the machines, with the software running things behind the scenes. Over time, robots will replace more of the mundane, repetitive functions and humans will have to adapt to remain useful.

Image credit: brunch.co.kr

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Melissa Burns is an education blogger, and a new teacher. She was studying in Columbia and those years inspired her to dedicate her life to teaching. She graduated from Iowa State University and is passionately interested in informatics, writing, and educational activism. She has already visited 38 countries and is planning to travel around the globe. Follow her @melissaburns and contact her at burns.melissaa@gmail.com

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