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

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

Prime time

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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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.