It was Steve’s birthday the other day and I always try to challenge myself to come up with a ‘birthday experience’; after all, we’ve got to ‘that age’ when we have enough stuff – but you can’t beat creating a great memory.

And I think I excelled myself on this occasion – three experiences no less! Tonight we are off to attend our ‘steak and sauces’ cookery experience in Albury; in August I’ve booked a gin tour but, in birthday week itself, we did the Amazon Fulfilment Centre tour!

When I told my niece about it afterwards, she exclaimed, “Blimey Auntie V, that’s something you buy someone you really don’t like!”. She’s wrong – I didn’t buy it at all, it’s FREE!

No doubt it says something about the way that Steve and I think but, honestly, we thought our trip around Amazon was brilliant. An absolute revelation, in fact. I would 100% recommend it to any business owner who wants to be inspired to think more about how their business process can be improved and just how to think BIGGER.

Automation taken to the next level

Tilbury is Amazon’s state-of-the-art warehouse that is almost totally automated. What surprised us most is how they have turned the notion of warehousing upside down – we have friends with an Amazon business and we fully expected to see shelves filled with products like theirs, all neatly stacked waiting to be picked for individual orders. No, not a bit of it.

There are 4 giant warehouse floors, with 2 warehouse zones at least the size of a football pitch in each. The centre of each zone is filled with Yellow warehouse pods being moved around by robots. This is a human free zone! The stowers and pickers have operating stations safely on the periphery of each batch of mobile pods.

When stocks are received by Amazon resellers, a box of, say, 48 ponchos is split in to 20 or so batches of 1,2,3 or 4 items. Each batch is sent independently all over the warehouse to be a stowing station each run by a human stower, supported by dozens of robots. The robots anticipate the arrival of the incoming stock and they move pods with spare space into a queue ready to receive the items from the stower. Every item’s progress and exact position is tracked every step of the way.

On the other side of the floor, order pickers select the item from a waiting queue of pods (the robots having already worked out what’s needed next); they send the fully-tracked item on its way to the packing area, ready to meet up with any other items in the same order. No-one is wandering up and down corridors picking stock – the stock is all moved robotically.

Organised chaos!

When I asked why they did it this way versus the traditional ‘everything on a shelf together’ approach, the answer made complete sense. Our guide told us, “If we receive 100 new Harry Potter books on and we then receive 100 Harry Potter book orders on release day, if they were all in the same place we could only fill one order at a time. If they are stored in 100 places, we can fulfil 100 orders at the same time!”.

That and the fact that they are also protected in case power goes down in any given floor or zone. He described it as organised chaos – and it is exactly that.

In the packing area, each item is pre-allocated a pack or box size according to its known dimensions. The machine pre-cuts and wets tape to the exact length ready for the packer to apply; I even had a go at making my own box! Further down the automated line, the label is applied at the very last moment – so data integrity is maintained at all times – and it is literally blown onto the box.

It was A-M-A-Z-ing

So, I get that warehousing almost certainly NOT what you do but I bet your business process could do with a drop of Amazon thinking! It’s definitely worth a visit to get your creative juices flowing. It’s free and you even get a free Amazon water bottle for your trouble – what’s not to like!