We picked an unusual bike-ride destination this time: our nearby Amazon warehouse, er, I mean fulfillment center.
Ads for (free) Amazon tours have been popping up in my Twitter feed for a while, so when I saw one for a Saturday that worked for us, I pounced. (Pro tip for all my retired friends: weekday tour spots are much easier to get.)
First, the bike part, and I don’t mean whether we were able to get there on low-traffic roads (we were, 11 miles each way). How bike-friendly would Amazon be? We had no idea where we’d be able to leave our bikes — locked to a pole? Turns out this site has two sets of bike racks. The wavy kind, not my preferred upside-down U ones (two touch points for the frame), but still, bike racks. Unfortunately, Amazon employees may not think the same way I do because our bikes were the only ones there. Hopefully we inspired a few.
I know — you’re really more curious about the warehouse. Simply, it was fascinating.
No photos allowed aside from the room where we gathered for the tour with 28 others, and I didn’t want to be obvious with my note-taking during the hour-long walk through a portion of the facility. But some of the big numbers stuck. It’s 1.2 million square feet of space over four stories, or the equivalent of 20 football fields. Not that it looked like you’d get in your 10,000 steps: These 300-pound orange robots underneath the storage units (think giant Roomba vacuums) bring the storage units (think shelves) to the pickers, and the 14 miles of conveyor belts bring the 40,000 yellow tote bins to the packers. The high-speed scanners made me think of express EZ Pass lanes, and the one scanning, weighing and slapping on the shipping label was in the middle of rush hour.
Here’s an Amazon photo of the robot, known as kiva (and yes, it owns the company), plus part of a storage unit:
Is this a glimpse into our world of autonomous driving? Only if you think there will be little sensors and QR codes everywhere on the predefined paths that vehicles can take. And there are still errors. Not crashes, but things falling out of the storage bins as they are moved around. Humans wearing special vests that alert robots to re-route get to pick up what’s on the floor. (Hope high-viz clothing won’t be a mandatory part of the fully self-driving future as a way of keeping us safe from cars.)
The Robbinsville site handles smaller items and boxes; kayaks and TVs are at another warehouse. Half the goods are from third-party vendors. About 100 trucks arrive every day delivering goods; 150 can leave with packages destined for all of us, after a stop at a sorting center. That’s 10 trucks an hour if they arrive full and leave full; twice as many if each either drops off or picks up.
And there is no rhyme or reason to how inventory is stored, just wherever there is room on these storage units (think shelves with bins, smaller ones up high, larger ones for heavier stuff at the bottom). That was a surprise — a book can be next to make-up or screwdrivers or a can of something. All that scanning means the robots know which one has what a picker needs to assemble your order (or whatever part is coming from here).
I was surprised at how few people we saw; the Brit was surprised that people pick out every item and pack it. (This site has 3,500 employees, divided over two shifts, and there are two identical halves to the building. Everyone works a four-day, 10-hour week, and it’s a set schedule, not one that can change every week or even every month.)
Here’s a bit of trivia: the Robbinsville site is known as EWR4. I know EWR as the code for Newark Airport, and it turns out Amazon uses airport codes for its sites. Sorry, our guide didn’t say what the 4 represents. The fourth Amazon site using EWR? (I’m only finding EWR 5 and above.) Or not to be confused with the three terminals at Newark, which anyway go by letters, not numbers? Anyone know?
This warehouse is one of several that is supposed to generally serve the Northeast, though it can and does send packages all over the world, and an order from the Northeast could be filled somewhere else. So why does every package I see have a Kentucky address? Because that’s where returns go. If you want to know where your order came from, read the codes on the left side of the address label. (This might help with that.)
The boxes! So many sizes, much more than you see at the post office, and a computer tells the packer which one to grab. So why, people wanted to know, does an order arrive in a box that’s obviously way too big? The answer is that the computer is only as smart as the information it’s given, and the dimensions it has for the item must have been entered wrong. (This is where third-party vendors get blamed.) A few things can be shipped in their original box, but we spotted that only rarely. Instead it’s the standard Amazon box — or one advertising Taylor Swift’s new album. Not that anyone buys an actual album or CD these days.
I spotted one later in the day being repurposed, but what was in it originally?
Finally, you take the tour using a headset because all the conveyor belts and robot beeps means weit gets a bit loud. Amazon will let you keep the headset part (not the radio it connects into), which we passed on. But it does send you off with a black Made-in-China aluminum water bottle. No spout to make it bike-friendly, but I’ll keep it anyway.