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You Can Learn a Lot from a ‘Bot

By Heshy Friedman

Field trip! To my local Amazon Fulfillment Center.

First of all, I owe a deep debt of gratitude to my friend Steve Shuster for arranging the tour. I wanted to see this facility in action, and I figured I might take away some knowledge. It turned out to be a day of surprises for me.

We arrived at their LGA9 Fulfillment Center in Edison, NJ, early in the morning. The first impression I had was, “if you think you know what large is, you haven’t yet seen a place like this.” It just seemed to go on forever. Remember the government warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Like that, only bigger, and better organized.

Rows upon rows of merchandise, stacked high on square palletized shelving units, receding into the distance in all directions. It sort of takes your breath away. And then you realize they’ve got buildings like these all over the world.

Then there’s the robots. Aside from a few “robotic arm” type pickers, they’re pretty unassuming, just an array of boxy platforms on wheels. Unassuming, that is, until they move out.

A Clockwork Factory
It’s hard to describe. On cue, a synchronized ballet of choreographed, precise movements begins. The robots all simultaneously pivot, accelerate, and roll, each to its designated station. Then they slide themselves under the shelving units. There’s a pause, and then suddenly, all the shelving units rise up off the floor as if levitating, suspended on the platform bots’ hydraulic lift tables.

Suddenly the whole warehouse seems to come alive. Now it’s the shelving units turn to be whisked across the floor, down the aisles, pivoting neatly around each other and any obstacles they might encounter, racing to their sorting destinations.

The human teams work alongside the robots, distributing products, packaging them, and stacking them into trucks for transport. Look closely—follow one product, for instance—and it seems simple. It is simple, at the micro scale. Seen as a whole, the effect is dizzying.

This complex, coordinated set of tasks is repeated neatly and precisely, thousands upon thousands of times every day, week, month and year. When you click a button and choose a product, this whole system swings in to action just for you.

We didn’t make this video below, but it’s a great sample we found online:

So, What’s the Takeaway?
Obviously, this didn’t happen by chance. It was carefully put together over time, until it reached its current level of sophistication. You can look up the business lessons online, but here’s what I learned from watching the fulfillment operation:

  • Growth is a process. Amazon has progressed from a husband and wife team to employee teams to robot teams. Keep looking for opportunities for improvement and new solutions to your business challenges.
  • Build a system and flow. When everything is working right, it looks effortless. Don’t be fooled! It takes hard work to look easy. Practice, perfect, listen, and improve.
  • Bring on great people to do what they do best… Watch for strengths and efficiencies, and nurture them.
  • …and use robots to do what they do best. OK, you don’t have robots. But for tasks that require specialized skills, rely on professionals to do the heavy lifting.
  • Reinvest in your business. It was years before Amazon turned a profit—because every cent was plowed back into R&D, growth, and marketing.

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