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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 enlightening talks and conventions to networking opportunities, here's where you need to be in November. Getty Images

Looking for some help navigating an innovation-filled month in Houston? Look no further.

November is jam packed with Houston business and innovation events — from huge conventions like SpaceCom and Global Corporate Venture taking over downtown on the same days to the Digital Fight Club battling it out in Houston for the first time and The Houston Innovation Summit planning a week of programming.

If you know of innovation-focused events for this month or next, 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.

November 5 — Female Founder Luncheon with MassChallenge and HX

Houston is full of entrepreneurial women and this event aims to bring women together and give access to top female entrepreneurs and passionate women in local businesses. They will share their 'why,' their stories, challenges, successes, tips, and answer your burning questions about local entrepreneurship. Join us for a panel and lunch in a closed setting where we discuss what it takes to be a successful female entrepreneur.

Details: The event is from 11 am to 1 pm on Tuesday, November 5, at Houston Exponential (410 Pierce St.). Learn more.

November 6 — Texas Life Science Forum

Rice Alliance's Texas Life Science Forum brings together members from industry, emerging life science companies, academic, and investors. This is the "must attend" event for anyone in the life science industry in Texas or affiliated with innovation at the life science academic institutions.

Details: The event is from 8:30 am to 5 pm on Wednesday, November 6, at BioScience Research Collaborative (6500 Main St.). Learn more.

November 6 — Baker Tilly - Six Figure #Fail

Details: The event is from 11:30 am to 1 pm on Wednesday, November 6, at The Cannon (1336 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

November 6 — Science First: Changing the Trajectory of Lung Cancer

In honor of Lung Cancer Awareness Month, JLABS sitting down with experts at The Lung Cancer Initiative at Johnson & Johnson and MD Anderson Lung Cancer Moon Shots as well as innovators in the field to present on and create dialogue around the core challenges faced by innovators in the field, new discoveries, emerging technologies, and potential solutions.

Details: The event is from 11 am to 1:30 pm on Wednesday, November 6, at JLabs @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd.). Learn more.

November 7 — TMCx Demo Day: Medical Device 2019

TMCx's annual medical device cohort celebrates the end of another program as the participating entrepreneurs take to the main stage to pitch their solutions. During the event, 16 medical device startups will showcase the progress they have made on their solutions, and what they have planned for the future.

Details: The event is from 1:30 to 8 pm on Thursday, November 7, at TMC Innovation Institute (2450 Holcombe Blvd.). Learn more.

November 8-10 — Second Annual Health Equity Hackathon

CareSet presents the second annual Health Equity Hackathon using newly available data that will help address innovations for the underserved community in the U.S.

Details: The event is from November 8 through 10, at United Way of Greater Houston (50 Waugh Dr.). Learn more.

November 12 — Houston Forum for Equitable Development without Displacement

Rice University is planning to develop 16 acres around Houston's Wheeler Station to create a neighborhood centered around technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship. To demand that the developers sign a Community Benefits Agreement, we are establishing the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement (HCEDD). All individuals, community groups, advocacy organizations, and supporting businesses/organizations who are interested in supporting this initiative are invited to attend.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Tuesday, November 12, at Wesley AME Church (2209 Emancipation Ave). Learn more.

November 13 — Upstream Venturing + Technology Showcase

In collaboration and partnership with Equinor Technology Ventures, BP Ventures, Shell Ventures, Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures, and Cannon Ventures, hear the latest trends in upstream technology implementation.

Details: The event is from 5 to 8 pm on Wednesday, November 13, at The Cannon (1336 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

November 14 — TopCoder Innovation Summit

The Topcoder Innovation Summit is the premier innovation event for industry leaders. At the Innovation Summit, you'll have the opportunity to speak with industry leaders, attend panels on innovation and emerging technologies, and meet with the Wipro and Topcoder executive teams.

Details: The event is from 8 am to 4:45 pm on Thursday, November 14, at InterContinental Hotel (6750 Main St.). Learn more.

November 14 — JLABS x UH: Startup Pains: From Academia to Startup (Therapeutics)

JLABS and the University of Houston Technology Bridge present a special installment of Startup Pains, a monthly talk given by entrepreneurs who share their journey of launching a company and overcoming unanticipated obstacles in order to find success in their industry. This month's focus is to arm those contemplating entrepreneurship with a road map for navigating the startup waters, specifically focused on therapeutics.

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 7 pm on Thursday, November 14, at JLabs @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd.). Learn more.

November 15 — Tilting the Grid: How Electricity Companies Will Disrupt

Tilting the Grid is the conference where you can eavesdrop on what the most daring companies in the REP space are doing and discuss what the next "big" thing might be. Ready to learn what big data can reveal about customer behavior? Prepared for a deep dive into the latest customer acquisition trends?

Details: The event is from noon to 5 pm on Friday, November 15, at Whitehall Hotel Houston (1700 Smith St). Learn more.

November 18-24 — The Houston Innovation Summit

For the third year, Houston's innovation ecosystem is taking over the city for a week of events and programming coordinated by Impact Hub Houston. To check out the panels, meetups, and all other programming, click here. Note: Some of the specific events will also appear in this curated list of Houston events.

November 20 — Houston Digital Fight Club

Entrepreneurs and experts are taking the stage — or in this case ring — to battle out their ideas on tech and innovation in Houston. The high energy debate will take place across five fights and networking opportunities. Secure your tickets — it's expected to sell out.

Details: The event is from 6 to 10 pm on Wednesday, November 20, at White Oak Music Hall (2915 N Main St.). Learn more.

November 20 — Inside Billy's Brain: Surgeon, Inventor, Innovator

Join JLABS @ TMC and explore the mind and motivations of Dr. Billy Cohn, the renowned surgeon, inventor and innovator.

Details: The event is from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm on Wednesday, November 20, at JLabs @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd.). Learn more.

November 20-21 — SpaceCom

SpaceCom, America's Commercial Space Conference and Exposition, addresses the strategic issues impacting the commercial space industry that will enable your business to set a clear course to gain a competitive advantage in the coming trillion-dollar space economy. SpaceCom is operating under a Space Act Agreement with NASA. In 2019, the Department of Commerce's Office of Space Commerce and the Department of Energy's Office of Technology Transitions join NASA and the commercial space industry in collaborating on the development of the show.

Details: The event is from Wednesday, November 20, to Thursday, November 21, at the George R. Brown Convention Center (1001 Avenida De Las Americas). Learn more.

November 20-21 — Global Corporate Venture 

Never has the energy industry been more vulnerable to disruption, but as open to change. The world's leading energy and transportation companies are using venture capital to invest in, and help deploy, new technologies and business models that will fundamentally change the way we generate, distribute and use energy.

Details: The event is from Wednesday, November 20, to Thursday, November 21, and takes place at various locations throughout the two-day conference. Learn more.