Amazon shows off its hi-tech fulfilment centres

Hot on the heels of the much hyped ‘drone delivery’ concept, Amazon is publicizing its latest logistics innovation. Today (1/12/14) it revealed its ‘eighth generation fulfilment centre’ to coincide with the CyberMonday Christmas ordering period. Amazon is currently operating 10 such facilities across the US.

These new warehouses appear to be the conventionally large fulfilment operations but with a much higher degree of automation. As far as can be ascertained, the centres have continued with evolution of the conventional picking faces, developing them with a higher level of automation around a cellular structure. Amazon are hailing the introduction of a number of automated sub-systems which include, “New vision systems enabling the unloading and receipt of an entire trailer of inventory in as little as 30 minutes instead of hours,” as well as, “high-end graphically oriented computer systems for employees to use while fulfilling orders for customers.” The latter are new touch-screen interfaces for SKU recognition that make it easier for the picker to identify products and in-put data into the system, enabling improved picking accuracy on higher through-put activities.

Other than that, the centre appears not too dissimilar from Amazon’s existing facilities, with an emphasis on racks moved by ADV’s from storage to the picking cells.

That said the concept does appear to fairly specific to the US, not least in the fact that the facility is fairly low-rise with no mezzanine picking-faces as might be found in countries with more expensive property costs.

The through-put of Amazon fulfilment centres is very great and they have to cope with an enormous variety of SKU’s. This justifies the high-level of automation, however retailers will struggle to justify such capital expenditure economically, with through-volume being so heavily skewed towards the Christmas period. Presumably Amazon is aiming to achieve such a high-level of volume that such an investment profile can be justified by the level of productivity achieved. None-the-less it does indicate that the potential for productivity increases in even moderately large logistics facilities offered by a combination of automation and information technology is very great.