Inside Amazon

Last day of October was my first day at Amazon. After spending a few years in the software and insurance industry, this is the first time my company works with something tangible. The first time the company has to deal with the constraints of the physical world. There are 10 trailers waiting but the workers can only unload 6 of them during their shift? Too bad. The database tells you there is a TV in the inventory but it cannot be physically found? Too bad. How do I like it so far?

Leadership Orientation

I joined Amazon as a Data Scientist in the Supply Chain Execution team. Supply chain covers the whole route of an item from the seller to the customer. As you can imagine, there is a lot to be optimized. Anything that will make the service faster, more reliable and cheaper for the customers counts. I am still figuring out what my job is about and I will write more on that later. The first thing I am going to share is my experience from the first few days. They flew me to Baltimore (which is in Maryland (which is next to Washington DC)) – 5 hour flight and 3 hour time difference, good reminder of how big the United States are. In Baltimore I spent a few days in a warehouse on a leadership orientation.

Amazon distinguishes two types of employees – leaders and associates. Do you have either direct reports or a desk with chair? You’re a leader. Do you manipulate the inventory or packages in a warehouse? You’re an associate. Associates are treated as the most important people in the company; packages wouldn’t be delivered without them. Leaders are there to support the associates. It sounds simple but I know of many companies that have it the other way around (i.e. the leadership is important in the company, the workers can be replaced).

There were 35 other leaders from all over the US, some of them having quite cryptic roles, including “PHL5 ICQA AM”. That one turned out to be an area manager of inventory control quality assurance in the closest warehouse to Philadelphia’s airport. A lot of the people there have recently been promoted from associate to leadership roles which means they were about to get something between 40 and 60 associates reporting to them (I am still not sure how they remember so many names). No chair or desk, though. Chairs decrease productivity, so they are rarely seen in warehouses. I was one of the few people from Seattle headquarters on the orientation which meant I would get my own chair and a “desk” when I start my job; the “desk” has to be in quotes as Amazon is known for using doors to make the “desks” cheap [0].

Kiva robots

Remember the newspaper articles about Amazon workers walking 10 or more miles around the warehouse on a daily basis? It might still be the case in traditional (or shall I say old-fashioned?) warehouses but the future is more interesting. Amazon has invested heavily in robotics; they paid $775 million for acquisition of Kiva Systems in March 2012. Shortly after that they pretty much stopped supporting other Kiva customers (who got really upset) and in April 2015 Kiva Systems were renamed to Amazon Robotics [1]. This June Bloomberg stated about 30,000 Kiva robots are scuttling about Amazon’s warehouses [2].

My favourite kind of robots are the orange ones that bring shelves to people, speeding up stowing and picking. There is an army of them in the Baltimore warehouse and I really enjoyed watching them. I found this article that describes 5 key components of the robotics system:

  • Custom designed Kiva shelves that are mobile and highly flexible.
  • A grid of 2D QR codes implanted on the floor.
  • An intelligent pack station decked out with scales, lasers, and sensors.
  • Orange robots that swiftly lift and move the shelves around the floor.
  • A complex and robust software system tying everything together.

You can see how cool the robots are in this video:


Coming up next

Seeing the ecosystem of a warehouse was great. I was tempted to try some of the things to get better understanding of how difficult the work is and to figure out what could be improved. The trouble is this time of a year is peak period. Black Friday is next week, followed by Cyber Monday and Christmas. And having people like me trying to help would slow things down (I felt kind of offended hearing that but I am afraid it might be true :-)). But I am promised to go through associate experience week some time in January. Yep, a whole week working as an associate in a warehouse, trying all different roles from unloading and stowing to picking, gift wrapping and packing. Can’t wait for it!

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