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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

 
 

Owning or even imagining that you own an object linked to a particular task can make you feel — and act — more like an adept. Photo via Getty Images

Want to get better at a task? It may be possible to shop — or imagine — your way to success.

Just pretending to shop for items associated with certain skills (for example, a fancy calculator) may actually improve your performance in areas related to that skill (in this case, math).

That’s because our identities are highly influenced by our possessions — which we often experience as part of ourselves. As a result, this activation of an identity by our possessions, even imaginary ones, can enhance performance. For example, one study found that by using a pen labeled “MIT” on GRE exams, students scored higher than those using a standard Pilot pen, particularly when they believed that their inner ability was fixed, and that they had to rely on external products to improve their ability.

In 2018, Rice Business professor Jaeyeon Chung and Gita V. Johar of Columbia University took a close look at the implications of this human quirk.

In a series of experiments, Chung and Johar found that the product-related activation of our identities (e.g., calculator ownership awakening an inner math prodigy) can actually de-activate our identities unrelated to the product, and undermine performance in other tasks.

For example, shopping for a calculator could make you perform better on a math test, but worse on a creative-writing essay.

Merely owning an item, the scholars discovered, is only part of the equation. Self-concept clarity — that is, the strength and clarity of one’s personal beliefs — makes a difference as well. A person whose self-concept is well-defined, consistent, and stable is less likely to be influenced by external factors such as possessions.

To measure the phenomenon, Chung and her colleague devised a series of experiments. The results showed that when a person merely imagines an item she longs to own, two inner changes occur: Identities related to the product are awakened, and identities unrelated to the desired object are stifled. Strikingly, these changes have measurable consequences on the performance of tasks.

But how do you awaken an inner self through possession, and measure its effects? The team found an ingenious approach: They assigned people to a control group or an experimental group, and then asked them to peruse an online IKEA. The control group was told to shop for items to go in a senior citizen home. The experimental group shopped for items to go into their own homes.

The experimental group, who got to imagine items such as a MALM bed in their own bedrooms, were more likely to think of themselves as artistic designers than were their counterparts, the imaginary retirement home shoppers. The exercise, in other words, had activated participants’ art-related identities.

Next, Chung and Johar asked everyone to complete a math task. The experimental group scored lower at this than did those in the control group. Their newly awakened identities as design mavens had undermined their ability to solve math problems, apparently because they were unrelated to the fetching Scandinavian décor they’d imagined owning.

The researchers then took another approach. Asking one group of participants to imagine owning a calculator, they activated that group’s “math identity.” They then asked all the participants to engage in a short IQ test. Though there was only one test, the researchers labeled it two different ways, indicating to some participants that the test measured math skills, and to others that it measured creative writing skills.

Despite the test being exactly the same, the would-be calculator owners performed markedly worse when they thought they were doing a creative writing project than when they thought the test measured their math skills. Why, exactly? The researchers concluded that imagining owning a piece of math-y technology and activating their “math person identities” tamped down participants’ “creative writer” identities — so much so that it actually degraded their performance in that area.

In a third experiment, Chung and Johar asked a group to envision calculators that they actually owned, rather than simply imagining buying one. Again, the group that felt ownership regarding a math tool performed better on tasks that seemed math-related, but worse on tasks that seemed unrelated to math. The finding was robust when the task itself was exactly the same and the only difference how the task was labeled.

Interestingly, identity activation and performance were influenced by the participants’ level of self-concept clarity. Some people have a clear and consistent self-view that does not vary over time; these are individuals who are less likely to rely on their possessions or other environmental stimuli to infer who they are. These individuals were less likely to be affected by the “ownership” of a calculator.

In other words, self-concept clarity limited the power of ownership on identity activation and performance. Chung and Johar’s findings offer practical implications for both business and academia. Owning or even imagining that you own an object linked to a particular task can make you feel — and act — more like an adept.

So the next time you have a big quantitative test coming up, consider browsing for a high-end calculator first — and unwinding with your oil paints or “Infinite Jest” when you’re done. For best results, of course, take the test with your Rice-labeled pen.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Jaeyeon (Jae) Chung is an assistant professor of marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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