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Lots of boxes, people make up Amazon facility

Agriculture
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Incoming inventory is placed in yellow totes, each with a distinctive bar code at Amazon’s distribution center in Cayce, S.C., so that the items can be tracked throughout the 1.25 million-square-foot facility. (Photo/Chuck Crumbo)
Incoming inventory is placed in yellow totes, each with a distinctive bar code at Amazon’s distribution center in Cayce, S.C., so that the items can be tracked throughout the 1.25 million-square-foot facility. (Photo/Chuck Crumbo)

By Chuck Crumbo
ccrumbo@scbiznews.com
Published Sept. 5, 2012

CAYCE, S.C. — Inside Amazon’s 1.25-million-square-foot fulfillment center is a world of yellow and green plastic totes, plus millions of brown cardboard boxes bearing the e-commerce giant’s trademark.

The brown boxes, each packed with a customer’s order, zip around the facility — big enough to hold 28 football fields with room to spare — on five miles of conveyor line.

The boxes are bar coded, stamped and loaded onto trucks and sent to shippers for delivery just hours after the customer clicked onto Amazon’s website and started shopping.

Amazon’s fulfillment center operations such as the one here in Lexington County might be described as “pick and cart.”

Inventory comes through one door and placed in bins. The section where the bins are located looks more like a library than a warehouse, a carryover from Amazon’s roots as a bookseller.

What’s different from the library, though, is that the inventory is not filed away using anything like the Dewey decimal system. Instead, each item has a unique bar code and is randomly placed in the warehouse bins.

Brown cardboard boxes bearing Amazon’s logo zip along a 5-mile-long conveyor line at the Cayce, S.C., facility. (Photo/Chuck Crumbo)
Brown cardboard boxes bearing Amazon’s logo zip along a 5-mile-long conveyor line at the Cayce, S.C., facility. (Photo/Chuck Crumbo)

When the items enter the warehouse they’re automatically listed on Amazon’s website so a customer can see what’s available.

“Everything we do here is done in real time,” said Mike Roth, Amazon’s vice president of North America operations.

When an order is placed, an employee — appropriately called a “picker” — is guided to an item’s location in the warehouse by a radio frequency identification scanner connected to a computer.

Pickers, pushing carts down aisles, locate items, scan them, and then take the items for packing and shipment.

The glue to the operation, Amazon said, is the proprietary software developed by the company’s engineers.

The software sifts and sorts data transmitted over an 18-mile network of fiber optic cable, tracking virtually everything that happens inside the 2 million-cubic-foot facility. The software also determines what to order and even calculates the price.

Amazon declines to offer specifics on the number of orders placed, filled or shipped. However, according to Logistics Viewpoints, a website that covers supply chain issues, “Amazon’s labor goals are roughly 160 picks per hour.”

While an Amazon fulfillment center is highly automated, human beings are needed to get much of the work done.

The facility at the Saxe Gotha Industrial Park in Lexington County, which opened in fall 2011, has about 1,000 employees, and Amazon expects to hire hundreds more as the holiday shopping season approaches.

Amazon also is building a second S.C. facility in Spartanburg County. The $50 million, 1-million-square-foot facility, expected to open in time for the holidays, will have about 390 employees.

Amazon, which received government incentives and an exemption from collecting S.C. sales tax through 2015, has promised to invest $125 million and create 2,000 jobs in the Palmetto State.

Amazon operates 69 fulfillment centers around the globe, and a dozen more are scheduled to open through the end of this year.

While touted as state-of-the-art today, the nature of fulfillment center operations could become even more automated.

In March, Amazon spent $775 million to buy Kiva Systems, a manufacturer of robots for distribution centers.

Kiva said its robot systems will be going into new Amazon fulfillment centers, meaning fewer workers could be needed.

Some observers think the robot systems can trim a distribution center payroll by 30% to 40% and boost productivity.

Amazon, though, has not indicated when or where Kiva robot systems will be installed.

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