Photo courtesy of Amazon
Amazon Go is coming, so off we went.
The newest Chicago-area location of Amazon’s no-checkout-line store from the e-commerce giant is about to open in the building where Sphera’s headquarters are located. Coincidentally, we visited Amazon’s Monee, Illinois, fulfillment center for Sphera Safety Day 2019. We ventured about 40 miles south on Nov. 13 to see the facility—and to check out those robots, of course.
(By the way, here’s an ear worm for you. When you think of Monee, think about the chorus to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” You’re welcome.)
In the Age of Online Shopping, we search, we find, we buy, buy, buy, and without a doubt Amazon is the prime source for most consumers’ internet transactions.
In 2018, almost half (49.1%) of all e-commerce purchases took place on Amazon, according to TechCrunch, so it was no hard sell to get Spherions excited about visiting the only Amazon robotics fulfillment facility in Illinois.
Having profiled the subject of robot-human interaction in the fall/winter 2018 Spark (remember Elektro, the Westinghouse Moto-Man?) and with Judy Coleman, Sphera’s director of solution consulting, writing about lockout/tagout (LOTO) in the upcoming issue (due out Dec. 4), you can bet that we were paying close attention to these large Roomba-like robots. They can transport up to five times their body weight by the way with precision and dexterity thanks to lines of QR codes on the floor. Each robot can work for up to 16 hours on a single charge, and the robots “know” when it’s time for a recharge, which takes about an hour.
For safety reasons, most of the workers are not allowed in the robot area. Only a mechanical engineer or “amnesty responder” can mingle with the robots if there’s an issue, but the workers must “alert” the robots about their whereabouts first. To keep the line of items moving with limited interruptions, robots go through regular maintenance as well. Using robots for moving large amounts of goods is not only a good idea for efficiency but also for worker safety as well. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, there are 35,000 serious and 62,000 non-serious forklift-related incidents each year in the United States, and in 2015 there were 96 workers who were killed in incidents involving forklifts.
(Full disclosure: We visited the Amazon fulfillment center before it was reported that a whistle-blower report claimed that Amazon worked with Indiana to downplay a worker’s death and safety concerns from a forklift accident. In a written statement posted on TechCrunch, Amazon called: “The idea that it pressured regulators ‘absurd’ and that ‘we stand by the findings of the investigation and that appropriate safety training was provided.’ ” There was also a separate report from The Atlantic, which, too, was published after our visit, on worker safety at Amazon from “the blistering pace of delivering packages to its customers.” While we did see a fast-paced work environment, we cannot speak to the veracity of these claims. During our tour we did not witness anything that appeared unsafe.)
While the employees and robots don’t often mingle in the same places, which is a good safety protocol, they do indirectly interact quite a bit. And We’ll get to that in a bit.
To learn more, our tour leader, Amia Ashford, along with two tour ambassadors, Brenda McGathey and Leonetta White, took us through the process of storing items and then selecting the right product, packaging it and sending it on its merry way with several quality checks along the way.
Before we started the tour, we had to show IDs and get badges. Security as you might imagine is tight, which is imperative for workplace safety and ensuring goods don’t go missing. (And, by the way, raise your hand if someone made a “Did you bring me a TV?” joke when you posted about your experience on social media. Well, the joke’s on them as there’s no item bigger than 18 inches in this facility—and we, of course, would never do anything of the sort even while Amazonians sort.)
As we made our way through security, we stepped into a massive, four-floor facility. As we watched packages snake their way around the immense 850,000-foot fulfillment center, so, too, did the dozens of eyeballs from the two groups of Spherions who toured the 2-year-old building. While the temperature in the facility was pleasant the day we visited, our tour guide told it can get warm on the upper level during the summertime, so workers can tell management if it’s getting too hot to help prevent an overheating incident.
Just outside of the conference room where we began our tour was a sign saying, “Get Your Safety Fortunes Here,” which we learned is an area for employees to get safety tips. There are also TV screens hanging on the walls listing questions and suggestions from employees with responses from leadership as well. Safety signage was present and easy to spot, including those telling workers and visitors to “use handrails” when going up and down the stairs. We also noticed safety netting on the stairwells and treads on steps to prevent slips and falls.
How It Works
For simplicity’s sake, here’s an abridged version of how the facilitation process works for the random items up for sale. Keep in mind that there’s a “stower” process for logging and storing the items and a “retrieving” process for getting them ready for shipping. A so-called “water spider” brings the items to the stower station and replenishes boxes, etc. The stower scans the items and places them in yellow cubbies, which are stationed on top of a robot. Once the bin is filled, the robot takes the items back to wait until they are needed to fulfil orders.
Each stower can add up to 25 pounds of items in each bin, and similar items are not supposed to be placed in the same compartment to avoid selection errors. The computer will tell the worker if two hands are needed to move the item because of its weight or awkward construction to help reduce the number of on-the-job injuries. Shifts last from 10 to 12 hours, and workers are given two 30-minute breaks during that time.
Once an item has been purchased, the robots take the products to the “picker” station to be scanned in and sent on their merry way down the conveyor belt of processing.
After the item has been selected, the item moves onto the packing station. We only saw the individual packing, so the computer tells the worker which size box to use and it automatically generates the exact amount of tape required to seal the box. Packers can decide the appropriate amount of cushioning material to keep the items safe during delivery; they can also override and correct the system should the wrong box size pop up in the computer. From there, the box goes back on a conveyor belt to reach what’s called the “SLAM” station (it’s an initialism for Scan, Label, Apply and Manifest) where the package is weighed one final time. If the weight is off by just one gram, then a worker opens the box to see what the issue is.
After any discrepancies are accounted for and corrected or if the box is good to go as is, it is finally sent on a Dematic conveyor belt that moves up to 30 mph. A brochure on the Dematic website explains, “Using data from the bar code scanners, the software [activates] the right-angle transfer devices allowing cartons to automatically divert into the pick zones.” Items are then kicked off down a spiral slide by a “shoe” sorter to reach the proper truck for delivery. If an item goes around three times and there is no suitable truck, then the item is pulled from the conveyor belt.
It’s an intricate and precision-based process to ensure packages get to the proper destination expeditiously. According to Ashford, the facility’s busiest week saw 4.9 million packages processed. To move that kind of inventory and keep the workers safe and the operations productive and sustainable is not an easy to achieve, so it’s great to see that technology plays a key role in, as they say, delivering the goods.
So what did some of Sphera’s other offices do for Sphera Safety Day? Scroll down to find out.
Spherions from Aberdeen learned what it’s like to be a firefighter for Sphera Safety Day 2019. To learn more about the training, please read “Sphera Safety Day: Fire Safety Training in Aberdeen.”
For Houston’s Safety Day, Spherions learned about self-awareness and self-defense.
Teddington Spherions visited the Mini factory for Safety Day to learn about safety in process automation and working with collaborative robots.