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How Amazon's Houston fulfillment center uses AI technology and robotics to move millions of products

From robotics to artificial intelligence, here's how Amazon gets its products to Houstonians in record time. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Last summer, Amazon opened the doors to its North Houston distribution center — one of the company's 50 centers worldwide that uses automation and robotics to fulfill online orders.

The Pinto Business Park facility has millions of products in inventory across four floors. Products that are 25 pounds or less (nothing heavier is stocked at this location) pass through 20 miles of conveyor belts, 1,500 employees, and hundreds of robots.

The center also has daily tours open to the public. We recently visited to see for ourselves the process a product goes through at this Houston plant. From stowing to shipping, here's how packages go from your shopping cart to your front porch.

Starting with stowing 

Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

A product's first step in an Amazon facility is stowing. There's no categorization of the products — it's not like there's one floor for one type of item or anything.

"It's completely randomly stowed," says Donna Beadle, PR specialist for Amazon. "She could be stowing cat food on this floor, and so could somebody on floor two."

An Amazon employee would scan an item and stow it into an empty bin of her choosing — sort of. To prevent confusion, a light projected indicates bins that are off limits to stow the item. The light identifies bins that have similar products. Keeping similar products apart helps prevents mistakes for the employee who later pulls those items once its ordered.

The system also sees where the employee is putting each item, rather than having to scan each item and the bin as well. This is a newer feature — the facility originally opened with hand-held scanners.

"Our next generation workstation is that they don't have to hold that scanner — they have hands free," says Brenda Alford, regional communications manager at Amazon.

Robots on the move

Once the bins are fully stocked, the robot — which is the orange device on the bottom of the yellow bins — moves about the facility by scanning QR codes on the floor.

Should a product fall out, an employee wearing a special vest can enter to retrieve it. That vest will send off a signal to the robots, which will then decrease their speeds and come to a stop when the employee comes close.

"It's an extra measure of safety so that people can interact with the robots and feel safe," says Beadle.

Picking before packing

Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Once an item is ordered, the bin with that item appears in the pick process at the center. The system tells the Amazon employee which item to grab and which bin to put it in. The bins will have products for multiple different orders — another employee later will separate it out later.

"Often we describe it as a symphony — our technology and our associates working together," Alford says, noting that sometimes the company might receive criticism about using robots over humans. "We can't do this without these humans.

Amazon employees receive their benefits from day one on the job, Beadle says, and they work four, 10-hour days a week.

"We feel like that way they have more time with their families — they get three days off versus two days off. And that gives them time to heal and rest up," she says.

Bin to bin and back again

Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Once full, the Amazon associate will push the bin onto a series of conveyor belts. The whole facility has 20 miles of conveyor belts — much of which happens overhead.

The bins then zigzag toward the pack process, which is separated to different stations. There are single-product stations and multiple package stations. The system determines where the bin should go, and some stations pack products that are determined to need packing materials, while others do not.

Single-product packaging

Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

At the packing process, the Amazon employee is told which size box to assemble — he or she can grab a bigger box, but they can't select a smaller one. The tape dispenser doles out the correct size of tape for that box automatically.

Once packaged up, a sticker with a barcode is placed on the box. This code will later be used to print the label for shipping. At this point in the process, no personal information has been revealed to anyone. In fact, most packages leave the facility without any personal information being viewed by employees.

In an effort to reduce packing materials, some products are shipped in the container they came in. In that instance, the packer would just place the barcode sticker on the package before sending it on the conveyor belt.

"If we don't need another box for that product, we don't use one," Beadle says. "We work with companies to make that happen, so we don't have to use more boxes if we don't have to."

SLAM 


While the robotics aren't slamming labels on packages, the SLAM process (short for scan, label, apply and manifest) is the first step in the process that includes a customer's personal information. During this process, the barcode is scanned, the package is weighed, and the label is printed and affixed to the package using a puff of air.

A package might be automatically pulled from the line if something seems to be off in the package's weight.

"Say you bought toothpaste, and it says that toothpaste weighs 20 pounds, we know something's wrong," Beadle says. "Like maybe that it was a pack that didn't get separated."

If the package is kicked off, an Amazon associate, called a problem solver, will assess the situation and make it right before returning it to the conveyor belt.

Kicked into gear

Once labeled, all the packages are sent on their final conveyor belt ride. Using a scanning process, the packages are kicked by an automated foot that sends them into a line to be loaded into an Amazon truck.

If a package misses its chute the first time around, it makes the loop again. The system can tell if a package is caught in the loop for whatever reason, and a problem solver might be called to assess the situation.

Down the slide

Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

After being kicked off the belt, the package then slides down a spiral chute that, despite looking like a playground slide, is off limits to any humans wanting to keep their job.

"People ask if you can go down the slide, and we always say that on your last day of work," Beadle jokes.

On to the shipping process

Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The packages leave the facility in Amazon trucks and head to one more pit stop before making it to the customer.

"They don't go directly to your house after this process," Beadle says. "They go to a sortation center."

This could mean a USPS or UPS stop, but it depends on where the customer lives.

From cancer-fighting companies raising millions to Houston area high school students learning how to start a company, here's some short stories on innovation you may have missed. Photo via inveox.com

Even during the dog days of summer, Houston has innovation news from all industries. In case you missed something, here's a news roundup of some short innovation stories — from raised funds to launched apps, podcasts, and programs.

If you know of innovation-focused news happening, email me at natalie@innovationmap.com with the details and subscribe to our daily newsletter that sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.

TMCx company raises 17€ million 

Photo via inveox.com

Munich-based Inveox, a, AI-enabled cancer-diagnosis technology startup, just set up shop in the Texas Medical Center as a part of TMCx's ninth cohort. The company now has another thing to brag about: 17 million euros worth of investment.

"My founding partner Dominik Sievert and I are very grateful that our investors put such great trust in us and our vision," says managing partner Maria Sievert in a release. "Together we are working towards the goal of using our innovation capacities to develop technologies that can be put to serve people. We want to help lab technicians who give their best every day at labs and we want to ensure the safety of patients as well as the speed and reliability of the entire diagnostic process. That's why we will use this further investment for our forthcoming series production and expansion into new markets."

The funds will go toward production of the company's technology.

Rice's Jones Graduate School of Business launches The Index podcast

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Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business, has launched, The Index, a podcast that explores thought-provoking topics and business-related ideas.

According to a news release, The podcast grew out of a 2019 South by Southwest partnership between Texas Monthly and Rice Business — the two entities teamed up for a podcast taping about digital wildcatting.

Saul Elbein hosts The Index. He is a contributor to the New York Times Magazine, the NPR radio show "This American Life," and other outlets. Find the latest episode here.

Life science startup organization closes $5.25 million round

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With the close of its $5.25 million round, Fannin Partners LLC — a Houston-based early-stage life science commercialization company — has brought in over $155 million for its portfolio companies.

The funds in part will go toward developing Fannin Innovation Studio. The studio anticipates adding 15 new portfolio companies over the next five years.

"With our portfolio companies Procyrion and Pulmotect advancing in their clinical development and with BreviTest poised for market launch in 2020, our investor group has recognized the tremendous progress we've made," says Fannin founder and chairman Leo Linbeck III in a release. "We are pleased to welcome the additional investment from existing and new investors in this round."

Houston app relaunches following raising $150,000 from local investor

Courtesy of Social Mama

An app that connects moms based on children's ages and common mom problems has relaunched with major upgrades after a year in beta. That's not the only thing Social Mama is celebrating. The startup secured $150,000 funding from local female powerhouse and blogger, Carrie Colbert.

Founder Amanda Ducach says she wanted to create an app that could smartly link moms going through similar struggles — from teething and potty training to single parenting or postpartum depression.

"The social impact of the product is so important," Ducach says in a previous InnovationMap story. "I can't explain to you the isolation and the problem that exists in motherhood. I was completely unaware of it before I started the company."

Austin tech startup lands major Houston-based client

office space

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Houston-based Lionstone Investments has made a deal with Austin-based Bractlet, a smart building software company. The deal translates to Bractlet implementing its technology in Lionstone's 31 office properties across the United States.

"Lionstone is recognized in the industry for its commitment to a data-driven approach to real estate investing," says Lionstone's head of portfolio management and co-head of operations, Tom Paterson, in a news release. "Implementing Bractlet's technology at the portfolio-level allows us to make informed decisions that benefit our investors, conserve energy, and improve tenant comfort and productivity. In this manner, Lionstone is able to provide best-in-class management throughout the entire investment lifecycle."

Houston area high school launches entrepreneurship program

Texas Teacher

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It's never too early to learn the ins and outs of entrepreneurship. Friendswood High School has announced that it will be launching INCubatoredu, a program to help students learn important lessons in the startup world, this fall.

"The Mustang Business INCubator is that authentic experience we were looking for in our business, marketing, and finance program of study," Susan Kirkpatrick, executive director of career technical education at FHS, says in a release. "Students will research a real-world problem that is of interest to them and work to find a product or service solution."

The program will be housed in a newly renovated creative space on the FHS campus. According to the release, the school will host a launch party for the program in the fall.