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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

 
 

Check out these conferences, pitch competitions, networking, and more in the month of October. Photo via Getty Images

Houston's busy business event season is in full swing, and there are ton of local innovation and entrepreneurship-focused programming across the city. Here's a rundown of what all to throw on your calendar for October when it comes to innovation-related events.

This article will be updated as more business and tech events are announced.

October 4 — Softeq Venture Studio Happy Hour

The Softeq Venture Studio is excited for you to meet the newest startups accepted into its 2H 2022 Cohort. Meet the teams and learn more about how they secured $125K in funding.

You'll have the chance to meet the startup founders, learn about the problems being solved, and learn more about how the Softeq Venture Studio de-risks growing startups.

The event is Tuesday, October 4, at 5 pm, at Yardhouse (City Centre). Click here to register.

October 5 — State of the Airports

Houston Airports is one of North America's largest and busiest multi-airport systems in the world and plays an important role in the greater Houston region's position as a great global city.

State of the Airports features Houston Airports Director, Mario Diaz, who will share the latest information and growth plans for Houston's three airports. Diaz will also address the important role the Houston Airports plays in bolstering Houston's position as an international air gateway.

The event is Wednesday, October 5, 10:30 am to 1:30 pm, at the Marriott Marquis. Click here to register.

October 11 — State of Space

Earlier this month, Space City celebrated the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s proclamation delivered at Rice Stadium, "We choose to go to the moon." Many decades ago, these words showed the world that Houston holds a place as the epicenter for the world's biggest space endeavors and while space exploration has changed tremendously since those famous words, Houston's reputation in aviation and aerospace only grows stronger.

Join the Greater Houston Partnership for State of Space on Tuesday, October 11, to hear from some of the sharpest minds in aerospace and aviation technology who continue to chart a vibrant future for Houston centered around NASA's Johnson Space Center and one of the world’s only truly urban commercial spaceports.

Speakers include:

  • Featured speaker and panelist: Vanessa Wyche, Director, NASA’s Johnson Space Center
  • Stephen Altemus, President & CEO, Intuitive Machines
  • Peggy Guirges, General Manager of Space Systems, Collins Aerospace
  • Panel Moderator: Arturo Machuca, Director, Houston Spaceport and Ellington Airport

The event is Tuesday, October 11, 10:30 am to 1:30 pm, at Impact Hub Houston (1801 Main street 10th Floor). Click here to register.

October 12 —  Making an Impact in the Houston Tech Ecosystem

You may have heard that Jay Steinfeld was the founder and CEO of Global Custom Commerce, which operates the world’s top online window coverings retailer Blinds.com. Boot-strapped in 1996 for just $3,000 from his Bellaire garage, Global Custom Commerce was acquired by The Home Depot in 2014. Jay remained its CEO and later joined The Home Depot Online Leadership Team. After stepping away from these roles in early 2020, he has increased his involvement on numerous private company boards and serves as a director of the public company Masonite (NYSE: DOOR). He also teaches entrepreneurship at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business and supports numerous charities. Jay is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and has earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Houston Technology Center. Active as an industry speaker on corporate culture, core values, how to scale a start-up, and disruption, he has more than 100 published articles.

But did you know that many of Jay’s former employees have started businesses of their own, formed angel investment funds, developed and led some of Houston’s best technology teams, and grown into pillars of the HouTech community?

Come hear what’s sure to be an intriguing panel discussion with Jay and several ex-Blinds.com’ers as they discuss company culture, core values, lessons learned, and thoughts on the HouTech ecosystem and take questions from the audience.

The event is Wednesday, October 12, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

October 13 — October Transitions on Tap

Transition On Tap is Greentown Labs' monthly networking event devoted to fostering conversations and connections among the climate and energy transition ecosystem in Houston and beyond. Entrepreneurs, investors, students, and friends of climatetech are invited to attend, meet colleagues, discuss solutions, and engage with our growing community. If you’re looking for a job in climatetech or energy, trying to expand your network, or perhaps thinking about starting your own energy-related company, this is the event for you.

The event is Thursday, October 13, 5 to 7 pm, at Greentown Houston. Click here to register.

October 14 — Tech, Tools and Tips: Digital Training Day at Impact Hub Houston

Struggling with a process in your business? There's probably a tech tool for that. Impact Hub Houston invites YOU to attend an extended edition of its Tech, Tools, and Tips Series hosted in partnership with Frost Bank.

The goal for this session is to provide small business owners with an overview of various digital tools that can help your day to day operations. By attending this event, you will learn about various digital tools and also have an opportunity to network with other small business owners.

The event is Friday, October 14, 8:30 am to 12:30 pm, at the Omni Riverway. Click here to register.

October 14-16 — Incubate Galveston + the Ion Hackathon 2022

A hackathon is a social design sprint that brings together the community to work in teams creating innovative solutions. Basically, it’s a party, and a 48-hour race between teams competing to develop solutions to problem-sets for cash prizes. Participants will work in small teams that have a collection of experts, entrepreneurs, students, and community members to tackle the below identified challenges:

  • Increase food access in urban core neighborhoods
  • Create opportunities for green initiatives, including environmental education, coastal resilience, and conservation
  • Propose home refurbishment programs and housing
  • Develop capacity for education and workforce skills development
  • Solve the plastic pollution issue in Galveston: Plastic trash in the water supply, on the beaches, and in the waterways of Galveston and surround areas affects the community in many ways (e.g., beaches look dirty, the plastic has chemicals harmful to health, and microplastics get into the environment and remain there for long periods of time. How can we solve this problem, removing and reducing waste and its downstream impacts, and make our community safer and cleaner? The plastic pollution problem can be address in the way of innovative preventive steps, innovation treatments, and public education, etc.
  • Offer creative solutions to other challenges

The event is Friday, October 14, to Sunday, October 16, at the Marmo Plaza. Click here to register.

October 19 — How to Build an App without Code, Part 1: Info Session (In-Person & Online)

Join Heather Wilson, a UX Researcher, Service Designer and Google Design Sprint Facilitator, as she teaches you how to build an app without code!

Benefits of building an app without code:

  • building a custom app could take months to a year to develop
  • coding could present problems when your mobile strategy is pivoting
  • allows for customization and the ability to make changes as needed
  • high costs can be associated with building am app
The event is Wednesday, October 19, at 6 pm, online. Click here to register.

October 20 — 2022-2023 UH Energy Symposium Series

Rising electricity prices, increasing concerns about grid reliability, and achieving carbon-free electricity in the U.S. by 2035 have refocused attention on the role of nuclear in the energy transition. This comes after a decade of low investments, accumulating nuclear waste, an aging fleet of reactors, public opposition, and regulatory mandates that stalled nuclear’s growth and led to declines in production. Meanwhile, the nuclear industry has maintained its safety record, made remarkable progress in fusion and advanced nuclear reactors, and improved operating safety and efficiency.

The first topic of the 2022-2023 Energy Symposium Series, The Future of Nuclear in the Energy Transition, will address if and how headways in advanced nuclear reactors, fusion, and waste management can overcome the challenges of economic feasibility, efficient and safe waste disposal, and build public and regulatory support for the increased deployment of nuclear energy in the U.S. We are excited to bring our panel discussion of Critical Issues in Energy back on campus this year.

The event is Thursday, October 20, at 6 pm, at Hilton University of Houston - Conrad N. Hilton Ballroom . Click here to register.

October 26-27 — Fuze

Fuze is bringing together the builders and innovators in energy tech. Shutting down 5 blocks in downtown Houston for two days and covering three content tracks, the event is focused on discovering breakthroughs in energy technology.

The event is Wednesday, October 26, to Thursday, October 27, at 8th Wonder Brewery. Click here to register.

October 27 — Aerospace Investment & Engagement

Join the Houston Angel Network as they discuss the current and future state of aerospace innovation and investment, followed by pitches.

The event is Thursday, October 27, at 8 am to 1 pm at the Ion. Click here to register.

October 27 — Space-Related Technology Development and the Houston Innovation Community

In these presentations, Mr. Montgomery Goforth and other aerospace subject matter experts will discuss the technology development challenges faced by NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the surrounding Aerospace community in our ongoing efforts as the hub of human spaceflight. Presentations will focus on the ways in which these challenges, and the associated opportunities, can be leveraged by Houston’s innovation community.

The event is Thursday, October 27, at 4 pm at the Ion. Click here to register.

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