Are you an Amazon customer? Have you ever wondered how that product in your online shopping cart gets from Amazon to you? When asked these enticing questions, 100% of the guests in the room nodded their heads in agreement. We all know the giant that is Amazon and how good it is at managing its logistics, but, believe me when I say, I would never have imagined such an organized, complex, fluid organization of space, time, inventories and employees.
Let me take a step back. Why were we there in the first place? Thanks to its recent collaboration with NIMS, some lucky BSI members had the opportunity to have an inside look at the functioning of Amazon’s MXP5 Fulfilment Centre located in Castel San Giovanni. It is important to notice that Amazon decided to build its warehouse in a strategic position, right next to the highway exit, meaning it is well-connected to important regions: Lombardia, Emilia Romagna and Piemonte.
As soon as we arrived, we noticed something unique about the way cars were positioned in the parking lot: they were all parked in reverse. All employees at Amazon use to back into the parking space rather than driving into them. Like a sort of code of conduct, Gloria, our tour guide, explained this parking technique assures safety, which is a number-one priority at Amazon. Considering that more than 1,000 employees are now working at MXP5 (a huge increase from the 150 with whom they started with in 2013), they must adopt the best practices, enabling a smooth flow of traffic during changing shift hours. In fact, she noted that after an 8h shift, attention naturally drops, and parking in reverse helps exiting in a fast and secure way. But this is just one example of the distinctive management of the company. As we were guided up the stairs to the meeting room, Gloria instructed the group to follow her on the right lane. On the floor, red and green signals showed the right path to follow. She explained that in case any emergency arises, these rules prevent concussions and panic, as all employees know where to go.
Our tour guide Gloria welcomed us to the room and gave us a brief introduction on the history and functioning of MXP5. The very first of Amazon’s fulfilment centres, how Amazon’s warehouses are called, was not the one we were in, but the one located on the opposite side of the highway. They moved in MXP5 in 2013. You might be wondering why MPX5? A very interesting thing about the way Amazon names each fulfilment centre across the globe is that the reference is always taken after the nearest airport, in this case, Malpensa Airport, while the 5 refers to the progressive number they gave to that specific project. In 2017 they launched 2 other fulfilment centres, one in Passo Corese and one in Vercelli, each with a peculiarity.
The one we were in, MPX5, is defined as a Sortable Traditional Site. “Traditional” refers to the way they are processing all the items – the employees will just manually receive the items, walk through the shelves in order to store or pick the items and manually add the product to the conveyer system for final shipment. “Sortable” instead designates the dimensions of the items that they store in that particular warehouse. In MPX5 they hold primarily small items stored in the Big Towers. Here they use a series of black buckets called “pods” positioned on the conveyer system to move items from one big tower to another. The Big Towers are essentially different floors characterized by thousands of shelves where you can find all the items one can order on Amazon’s website.
The site in the province of Rome is not a traditional site but a Robotic site, which means it supports 2 process: storage and picking. Over there, it is not the employee who will walk through the shelves in order to store or pick items, but it is the shelf itself that will be lifted up and then taken to some fixed workstation. How does this happen? Some robots called “Kivas”, capable of lifting up to 350kg, scan barcodes on the pavement to direct them to specific coordinates. The site in Vercelli, in contrast, is a Non-Sortable site, which means there they are storing only high size items, for example wardrobes, microwaves, etc. On the label of each item delivered they print the name of the site which fulfilled that order, so now you know whether your future order was managed by MPX5 or some other fulfilment centre! Gloria explained that any other building relates to another of Amazon’s businesses: Amazon transportation and logistics, which takes care of the “last mile delivery”, meaning everything that happens once the item leaves the fulfilment centre.
After the short briefing, the visit inside the warehouse began. We were given special fluorescent jackets with the Amazon logo and headphones so that we could follow the guide’s instructions and insights. We started from inbound dock, where the receive process occurs. Here products get off trailers by forklift or are manually built into pallets. Freight is separated between coming from another of Amazon’s fulfilment centre or coming directly from a customer. We then we moved to the Big Towers to see how the items are stored and picked. Everyone was impressed by the principle Amazon used to store items, the so-called “Order Case”. Ironically, there was no order whatsoever. If you imagined items in Amazon warehouse being stored in an orderly fashion like in a supermarket, with toys in one aisle, electronics on another and books on another, you were completely wrong. All of the inventory is stowed randomly. Gloria explained that there are two main advantages of this system: first it optimizes the chances that items in a multiple order are found in the same location, minimizing the effort and time employees have to walk through the big towers in order to pick or store items. Secondly, it decreases dramatically the chance of picking a wrong item, since articles next to each other are completely unrelated. Although it is counterintuitive, the system actually makes it easier for employees to quickly pick and pack a wide variety of items.
We then moved to outbound dock to see how orders are packed. First items belonging to different shipments are organized and scanned for accuracy. Then they are sent to the pack station, where employees are actually suggesting the box that will be used to package a specific item. Many items are shipped in their original boxes to reduce packaging and unnecessary waste. Two automation systems are implemented to help to fulfil and ship orders out: the SLAM (Scan, Label, Apply, Manifest”) and the Shipping Sorter. The SLAM is the system that labels each single box. How it works? Packed envelops and boxes race under it and the machine deposits shipping labels at an impressive speed with a light touch. The box is even weighted to ensure it matches the order. The Shipping Sorter is the system that actually reads the label on each package and helps to divide all the orders according to zip code, destination area and time of delivery, before they are shipped and finally reach your home.
As soon as the guided tour ended, we were escorted to the first meeting room and surprisingly a tiny budget (an airplane) was distributed out in memory of the great experience. The in-company visit has really been an amazing opportunity to see with our own eyes how Amazon efficiently manages the entire fulfilment process, from the time the inventory comes in from manufacturers and is shipped out directly to customers.
By: ANNA MARTINELLI