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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Health tech startup launches Houston study improve stroke patients recovery

now enrolling

A Houston-born company is enrolling patients in a study to test the efficacy of nerve stimulation to improve outcomes for stroke survivors.

Dr. Kirt Gill and Joe Upchurch founded NeuraStasis in 2021 as part of the TMC Biodesign fellowship program.

“The idea for the company manifested during that year because both Joe and I had experiences with stroke survivors in our own lives,” Gill tells InnovationMap. It began for Gill when his former college roommate had a stroke in his twenties.

“It’s a very unpredictable, sudden disease with ramifications not just for my best friend but for everyone in his life. I saw what it did to his family and caregivers and it's one of those things that doesn't have as many solutions for people to continue recovery and to prevent damage and that's an area that I wanted to focus myself on in my career,” Gill explains.

Gill and Upchurch arrived at the trigeminal and vagus nerves as a potential key to helping stroke patients. Gill says that there is a growing amount of academic literature that talks about the efficacy of stimulating those nerves. The co-founders met Dr. Sean Savitz, the director of the UTHealth Institute for Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases, during their fellowship. He is now their principal investigator for their clinical feasibility study, located at his facility.

The treatment is targeted for patients who have suffered an ischemic stroke, meaning that it’s caused by a blockage of blood flow to the brain.

“Rehabilitation after a stroke is intended to help the brain develop new networks to compensate for permanently damaged areas,” Gill says. “But the recovery process typically slows to essentially a standstill or plateau by three to six months after that stroke. The result is that the majority of stroke survivors, around 7.6 million in the US alone, live with a form of disability that prevents complete independence afterwards.”

NeuraStasis’ technology is intended to help patients who are past that window. They accomplish that with a non-invasive brain-stimulation device that targets the trigeminal and vagus nerves.

“Think of it kind of like a wearable headset that enables stimulation to be delivered, paired to survivors going through rehabilitation action. So the goal here is to help reinforce and rewire networks as they're performing specific tasks that they're looking to improve upon,” Gill explains.

The study, which hopes to enroll around 25 subjects, is intended to help people with residual arm and hand deficits six months or more after their ischemic stroke. The patients enrolled will receive nerve stimulation three times a week for six weeks. It’s in this window that Gill says he hopes to see meaningful improvement in patients’ upper extremity deficits.

Though NeuraStasis currently boasts just its two co-founders as full-time employees, the company is seeing healthy growth. It was selected for a $1.1 million award from the National Institutes of Health through its Blueprint MedTech program. The award was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The funding furthers NeuraStasis’ work for two years, and supports product development for work on acute stroke and for another product that will aid in emergency situations.

Gill says that he believes “Houston has been tailor-made for medical healthcare-focused innovation.”

NeuraStasis, he continues, has benefited greatly from its advisors and mentors from throughout the TMC, as well as the engineering talent from Rice, University of Houston and Texas A&M. And the entrepreneur says that he hopes that Houston will benefit as much from NeuraStasis’ technology as the company has from its hometown.

“I know that there are people within the community that could benefit from our device,” he says.

Texas Space Commission launches, Houston execs named to leadership

future of space

Governor Greg Abbott announced the Texas Space Commission, naming its inaugural board of directors and Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee.

The announcement came at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and the governor was joined by Speaker Dade Phelan, Representative Greg Bonnen, Representative Dennis Paul, NASA's Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche, and various aerospace industry leaders.

According to a news release, the Texas Space Commission will aim to strengthen commercial, civil, and military aerospace activity by promoting innovation in space exploration and commercial aerospace opportunities, which will include the integration of space, aeronautics, and aviation industries as part of the Texas economy.

The Commission will be governed by a nine-member board of directors. The board will also administer the legislatively created Space Exploration and Aeronautics Research Fund to provide grants to eligible entities.

“Texas is home to trailblazers and innovators, and we have a rich history of traversing the final frontier: space,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick says in a news release. “Texas is and will continue to be the epicenter for the space industry across the globe, and I have total confidence that my appointees to the Texas Space Commission Board of Directors and the Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee will ensure the Texas space industry remains an international powerhouse for cutting-edge space innovation.”

TARSEC will independently identify research opportunities that will assist the state’s position in aeronautics research and development, astronautics, space commercialization, and space flight infrastructure. It also plans to fuel the integration of space, aeronautics, astronautics, and aviation industries into the Texas economy. TARSEC will be governed by an executive committee and will be composed of representatives of each higher education institution in the state.

“Since its very inception, NASA’s Johnson Space Center has been home to manned spaceflight, propelling Texas as the national leader in the U.S. space program,” Abbott says during the announcement. “It was at Rice University where President John F. Kennedy announced that the U.S. would put a man on the moon—not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

"Now, with the Texas Space Commission, our great state will have a group that is responsible for dreaming and achieving the next generation of human exploration in space," he continues. "Texas is the launchpad for Mars, innovating the technology that will colonize humanity’s first new planet. As we look into the future of space, one thing is clear: those who reach for the stars do so from the great state of Texas. I look forward to working with the Texas Space Commission, and I thank the Texas Legislature for partnering with industry and higher education institutions to secure the future of Texas' robust space industry."

The Houston-area board of directors appointees included:

  • Gwen Griffin, chief executive officer of the Griffin Communications Group
  • John Shannon, vice president of Exploration Systems at the Boeing Company
  • Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby, co-founder and CEO of Venus Aerospace
  • Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lunar Exploration Campaigns at Lockheed Martin
  • Dr. Nancy Currie-Gregg, director of the Texas A&M Space Institute

Additionally, a few Houstonians were named to the TARSEC committee, including:

  • Stephanie Murphy, CEO and executive chairman of Aegis Aerospace
  • Matt Ondler, president and former chief technology officer at Axiom Space
  • Jack “2fish” Fischer, vice president of production and operations at Intuitive Machines
  • Brian Freedman, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership and vice chairman of Wellby Financial
  • David Alexander, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Rice Space Institute at Rice University

To see the full list of appointed board and committee members, along with their extended bios, click here.