Nov 27, 2023 - Business

Amazon's Cyber Monday: Robots, pickers, sorters — and packages, packages, packages

At an Amazon fulfillment center in Robbinsville, N.J. — the size of 28 football fields — a worker checks packages on a conveyor belt that's carrying them to truck-loading docks. Photo: Clifford A. Sobel for Axios

A peek inside an Amazon fulfillment center on Cyber Monday offered a glimpse of the future of the logistics industry.

  • Wheeled robots escorted giant pallets of assorted products to human "stowers" (who unloaded fresh inventory) and "pickers" (who filled customer orders).

Why it matters: Amazon recently surpassed UPS and FedEx as the biggest U.S. delivery company by parcel volume — and its lead is growing, the Wall Street Journal reports.

  • On average, customers ordered more than 1,000 items per second from Amazon on Black Friday, the company tells Axios.

Driving the news: To show off the evolution of its mind-boggling logistics operation, Amazon invited Axios on a Cyber Monday tour of an enormous fulfillment center near Trenton, N.J. — one of hundreds it operates.

  • The Robbinsville, N.J., facility was slated to handle hundreds of thousands of packages on Monday alone.
  • The site is 1.2 million square feet — 28 football fields — and employs 3,000 workers, who toil alongside hundreds of the 750,000 robots that Amazon deploys worldwide.
  • "It's a big day," Beryl Tomay, Amazon's vice president of last mile delivery and tech, told Axios. "We have millions of deals dropping every five minutes through select periods — that's new for Cyber Monday."
An Amazon fulfillment center worker selects items to pack for a customer's order.
A "picker" selects items to fulfill customers' orders. The tall shelving unit on the right sits atop a Hercules robot, which ferries it around the warehouse floor. Photo: Clifford A. Sobel for Axios

How it works: At this "first mile" fulfillment center, customer orders are packaged up and trucked off to "middle mile" and "last mile" facilities.

  • Merchandise gets loaded onto tall shelving units that ride on mobile Hercules robots, which look like Roomba vacuums but can carry 1,250 pounds.
  • The robots deliver the shelving units to human workers, who hand-sort the inventory.
  • Packages get loaded onto a massive, multi-mile conveyor belt, where they're eventually nudged onto the correct trucking bay.

Details: The operation looks less like an assembly line than a series of giant workstations. Each employee pulls items from a rotating series of shelving units, which glide across the floor in balletic procession.

  • "This gentleman over here? He's a 'stower' — he's taking a product that's come into our inbound, and he's loading it into the pod," explained Sam Fisher, an Amazon spokesman.
  • "Whereas this person over here? They're a 'picker,' so they're taking something that someone's already ordered and they're getting it ready to get shipped out," he said. "It's all happening side by side in the same area."

The robots use AI and computer vision to figure out where to bring their loads.

  • "We have deep learning, generative AI techniques to predict demand for over 400 million products," Tomay said. "So we know where to place these items and in what quantities, so customers can get them as fast as possible."
  • The robots "collaborate with our employees to reduce walking distances, repetitive motion and reduce heavy lifting, so it's safer and more ergonomic," she added.

What they're saying: "The scale at which we operate is really tremendous," Tye Brady, Amazon's chief roboticist, tells Axios.

  • "We shipped 8 billion packages in 2022 alone, and we could not have done that without two key ingredients" — robots and people.
  • "It's this philosophy of people and machines working together," he said. "I do believe that we are pioneering the future of robotics here at Amazon."
Packages traveling on a conveyor belt at an Amazon fulfillment center.
Packages travel along miles of conveyor belts to reach the trucks that will usher them to the next leg of their journey. Photo: Clifford A. Sobel for Axios

What's new: Amazon's regionalization strategy, introduced earlier this year, shifted fulfillment from a national operation to eight largely self-sufficient regional networks.

  • "Before, if you ordered an item, it could come from anywhere in the United States," Tomay said. "So if I'm here in New Jersey, I might get it from the West Coast."
  • "We're now shipping over 75% of our orders within that customer's region," she said. "This means less miles traveled and faster delivery speeds — and it's great for the environment."

Of note: Amazon is touting its apprenticeships in mechatronics and robotics to support its argument that its growing fleet of warehouse robots doesn't steal jobs — it creates them.

Yes, but: A labor-led campaign called "Make Amazon Pay" staged protests and strikes at Amazon facilities globally on Black Friday and Cyber Monday to call attention to workers' quest for higher wages.

  • Protesters called on Amazon to "improve worker conditions, lessen its carbon footprint and pay more in taxes," per The Hill.
  • A separate anti-Amazon campaign by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group targets the volume of plastic waste generated by the world's largest retailer.
  • And OSHA has filed several safety violations against Amazon involving worker injuries in recent months, the Washington Post reports.
Packages on a conveyor belt about to be placed on trucks.
Reaching the end of their warehouse journey: Boxes with customer orders travel along this conveyor belt until a mechanical orange "pusher," on the right side of the belt, nudges them into the chute that delivers them to the appropriate truck. Photo: Clifford A. Sobel for Axios

What's next: Amazon has ambitious expansion plans in robotics, which anchor its logistics operation.

  • The trusty Hercules is being replaced by Titan robots, which look similar but can carry 2,500 pounds.
  • Other warehouse robots include Robin, a crane-like arm that lifts and sorts customer orders; Proteus, Amazon's first fully autonomous mobile robot; and Sparrow, a robot arm that moves products before they're packaged.
  • It's also starting to test a humanoid robot called Digit, made by Agility Robotics.
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