Amazon Fulfillment Centre: How Random & Lean Can Work Together

February 17, 2020 Leah NacuaBrampton, Durham, GTA, Mississauga, Vaughan 209 Views

When making a last-minute purchase, such as during the busy holiday season, or when looking for an item that is difficult to find in a brick-and-mortar store, the first thing that pops up to most people’s minds is to buy the item on Amazon.  Over 25 years after starting off as an online bookseller, Amazon has now become the world’s largest and most popular e-commerce retailer in the world, with a huge number of SKU’s and lightning-fast shipping capabilities.  Therefore, it came as no surprise that many of our members jumped at the opportunity to tour the Amazon Fulfillment Centre in Brampton.  From both a business and personal perspective, there was much curiosity regarding how Amazon can deliver such a large variety of manufactured goods in so little time.   

Some interesting (and surprising) things we learned and saw:

  • The Amazon YYZ4 facility measures over 850,000 square feet, enough to fit in more than 40 NHL hockey rinks. 
  • Despite having hundreds of employees and thousands of items in stock, we didn’t see many employees walking around the building nor did we see forklifts during our one-hour tour!  Employees move items within no more than a 1 meter distance, and transfer of items from one area to another (such as from the receiving areas to stowage to packing to shipping areas) are all done by bots, or by conveyors that cross over 20km inside the building! 
  • Items are randomly stored in the shelves of the warehouse.  While it sounds counterintuitive, the random locations apparently maximize the chance of multiple items on the same order being near each other, so bots can then travel the shortest distance to pick the orders.  Talk about Lean thinking and optimization!  (After all, Prime consumers are paying for same-day delivery, not the orderly sorting of items received in the warehouses.)

During the tour, we saw a lot of automation and conveyors everywhere, as well as the many checks and balances in place to ensure quality of shipments.  But like any process operations, nothing is perfect.  At one of our tours, one of the sloped conveyor belts had a logjam as a large box got stuck on the curve of the conveyor, thereby creating a backlog of boxes to form behind it.  This example shows that, regardless of how efficient an operation has become, there is always room to improve!  (An employee quickly came to the rescue with an 8ft pole so, somehow, I think those shipments still made their scheduled delivery time.) 

The Amazon tour gave our members a glimpse into the operations of a company known for its quality, productivity and efficiency.  We also saw multiple examples of Lean practices and numerous displays of the company’s workplace wellness initiatives.  From what we saw, what lasting impressions did the tour have on you?  Did you see anything new that you could implement at your workplace?  Share your comments!