A look at the robotic wonders at Amazon fulfillment center
It starts with an online order. An Amazon customer buys a product and designates a shipping schedule, and the high-speed automated process at the company's Kansas City, Kan., fulfillment center begins.
The order makes its way to an employee at the fulfillment center. But the employee doesn't go hunt for the product; instead, a small orange robot on wheels brings it to an employee station, where it's plucked, scanned and sent up a series of conveyor belts to another floor for packaging.
Amazon's new fulfillment center boasts a series of automated systems the size of 14 football fields, and its employees work alongside machines every step of the way. The 850,000-square-foot fulfillment center opened last August as the company's third in Kansas.
The fulfillment center employs 2,000 people handling products about the size of a microwave or smaller. Amazon's fulfillment center in Edgerton handles larger items. The third center is in Lenexa.
From the time an Amazon order arrives at the fulfillment center in a shipment from one of the company's vendors until it leaves on a truck destined for someone's porch, the process is highly automated. Nikki Taylor White, director of operations at the new Kansas City, Kan., fulfillment center, said the company's employees embraced the technology in an age of concern over automation and its effect on workers.
"We have a very strong excitement about — how do I work with these robots, and how can I make this a part of my day?" White said.
When a product arrives on the center's third floor, it gets boxed, taped and sent down the line where a sensor reads it shipping information from a bar code, weighs it and uses an air-pressurized device to "slam" on a shipping label.
Farther down the line, boxes slide onto a high-speed conveyor belt that sorts them into trucks based on how quickly customers want them shipped. Down a spiral slide, the other packages slated for that truck are waiting.
The center primarily serves Kansas and Missouri but can ship across the country.
Despite growing anxiety over the role of automation in manufacturing, Amazon's footprint as a Kansas City area employer has grown. White said the robotics don't work without the people.
"Without people, the robotics can't do what they need to do," White said. "Our critical thinking skills are what makes us the best and what makes that interaction between the person and the robot the only way it gets done. You can't have one without the other."
She said the robots Amazon uses makes employees' jobs easier and more efficient so they can use their skills to ensure quality for customers.
To White, it's also important that Amazon be a strong community partner. Her site worked with Kansas City Kansas Community College to fund scholarships and will have upcoming opportunities for students to come to the fulfillment center. A bus route developed in partnership with the Unified Government of Wyandotte County stops outside the fulfillment center near Interstate 70 and Turner Diagonal.
Every month, the center donates food to Harvester's, and the company gave away science, technology, engineering and math equipment to the state schools for the blind and deaf. Last year, employees were able to pack up supplies and give funds to Sheffield Place, a shelter for homeless mothers and children.
Amazon employees are also eligible for 95 percent tuition coverage for courses in in-demand fields once they have a year of experience.