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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.

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Building Houston

 
 

From software and IoT to decarbonization and nanotech, here's what 10 energy tech startups you should look out for. Photo via Getty Images

This week, energy startups pitched virtually for venture capitalists — as well as over 1,000 attendees — as a part of Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship's 18th annual Energy and Clean Tech Venture Forum.

At the close of the three-day event, Rice Alliance announced its 10 most-promising energy tech companies. Here's which companies stood out from the rest.

W7energy

Based in Delaware, W7energy has created a zero-emission fuel cell electric vehicle technology supported by PiperION polymers. The startup's founders aim to provide a more reliable green energy that is 33 percent cheaper to make.

"With ion exchange polymer, we can achieve high ionic conductivity while maintaining mechanical strength," the company's website reads. "Because of the platform nature of the chemistry, the chemical and physical properties of the polymer membranes can be tuned to the desired application."

Modumetal

Modumetal, which has its HQ in Washington and an office locally as well, is a nanotechnology company focused on improving industrial materials. The company was founded in 2006 by Christina Lomasney and John Whitaker and developed a patented electrochemical process to produce nanolaminated metal alloys, according to Modumetal's website.

Tri-D Dynamics

San Francisco-based Tri-D Dynamics has developed a suite of smart metal products. The company's Bytepipe product claims to be the world's first smart casing that can collect key information — such as leak detection, temperatures, and diagnostic indicators — from underground and deliver it to workers.

SeekOps

A drone company based in Austin, SeekOps can quickly retrieve and deliver emissions data for its clients with its advance sensor technology. The company, founded in 2017, uses its drone and sensor pairing can help reduce emissions at a low cost.

Akselos

Switzerland-based Akselos has been using digital twin technology since its founding in 2012 to help energy companies analyze their optimization within their infrastructure.

Osperity

Osperity, based in Houston's Galleria area, is a software company that uses artificial intelligence to analyze and monitor industrial operations to translate the observations into strategic intelligence. The technology allows for cost-effective remote monitoring for its clients.

DroneDeploy

DroneDeploy — based in San Francisco and founded in 2013 — has raised over $92 million (according to Crunchbase) for its cloud-based drone mapping and analytics platform. According to the website, DroneDeploy has over 5,000 clients worldwide across oil and gas, construction, and other industries.

HEBI Robotics

Pittsburgh-based HEBI Robotics gives its clients the tools to build custom robotics. Founded 2014, HEBI has clients — such as NASA, Siemens, Ericsson — across industries.

CarbonFree Chemicals

CarbonFree Chemicals, based in San Antonio and founded in 2016, has created a technology to turn carbon emissions to useable solid carbonates.

SensorUp

Canadian Internet of Things company, SensorUp Inc. is a location intelligence platform founded in 2011. The technology specializes in real-time analysis of industrial operations.

"Whether you are working with legacy systems or new sensors, we provide an innovative platform that brings your IoT together for automated operations and processes," the company's website reads.

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