Drapers tours an Amazon fulfilment centre to learn how robots and humans are working side by side to power the etailer’s deliveries
If there is one retailer that has revolutionised customers’ delivery and convenience expectations, it is Amazon. The US tech giant’s vast assortment – there are 250 million unique products for sale on its UK website alone – combined with its customer-centric approach and speedy delivery have left much of the retail industry playing catch-up.
Central to Amazon’s slick operations is its network of 17 fulfilment centres dotted around the UK, including sites in Rugeley in Staffordshire, Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, and Altrincham in Greater Manchester. Drapers visited its site in Tilbury, Essex, at the end of last month, just as the etailer began to ramp up operations in the run-up to the crucial peak trading period. Amazon is currently recruiting for 20,000 seasonal roles across all of its UK distribution centres to help it fulfil Black Friday and Christmas orders.
Named LCY2 after nearby London City – all Amazon fulfilment centres are named after the closest airport – the impressive building opened last year and employs 2,000 members of staff.
Clocking in at 2 million sq ft – the size of 28 football pitches – Tilbury is Amazon’s largest fulfilment centre in the UK. It is also home to the etailer’s latest robotic technology. Inside the vast centre, human employees work alongside an army of several thousand orange robots that glide effortlessly around the space. Known internally as drives, this futuristic workforce uses QR codes pasted on the floor to navigate. Cameras mounted on the bodies of the drives prevent any accidental collisions. Cleverly, they also recognise when their batteries are running low and take themselves to a charging point before re-joining their robotic colleagues.
The robots identify and lift towers of shelves containing everything from books to pet food, before bringing them to their human counterparts to be picked and packed. Once a drive has brought a tower containing the correct item to the packer, a computer system tells the human employee the exact location of the product they need for the order they are processing.
The procedure looks like an intricate dance as the robots move elegantly around each other on their missions.
Once an order has been successfully picked and packaged, it is put through Amazon’s SLAM – scan, label, apply and manifest – machine. The machine ensures parcels are the correct weight, and rejects those that are too light or heavy and therefore may contain the wrong product, so they can be checked.
The SLAM machine also knows if an order is running late and will fail to be delivered to the customer on time, and upgrades the postage at Amazon’s cost. The final package is then distributed via various chutes to the correct delivery carrier, before beginning its journey out to shoppers.
There is no doubt that the robotic element of Amazon’s fulfilment centre is impressive and justifies why the etailer has become a byword for innovation. But what about the human workforce?
Amazon has faced repeated criticism for poor working conditions in its fulfilment centres, including an exposé published in November last year by the Sunday Mirror, which claimed staff at Tilbury were exhausted, falling asleep on the job and struggling to meet punishing targets.
In response, Amazon claimed that it provides “a safe and positive workplace with competitive pay and benefits”.
That pay has recently increased. From 1 November, the etailer upped its minimum wage to £10.50 /hour for those in London and £9.50/hour across the rest of the UK for all its full-time, part-time temporary and seasonal workers. This compares favourably to what charity The Living Wage Foundation defines as the wage people need in order to live – £10.20 in London and £8.75 elsewhere. However, at the same time, Amazon phased out its restricted stock unit scheme, under which staff would be granted one share in the business at the end of each year of employment. It said “prefer the predictability and immediacy of cash”.
Amazon is also keen to shout about the benefits it offers its flesh-and-blood team. Its Career Choice programme provides employees with funding for adult education, such as courses in skilled trades, IT or healthcare, and Amazon prepays 95% of course fees for up to £8,000 over four years. It is available to all permanent employees who have worked at Amazon for a year or more.
It has also announced plans to open a new office in Manchester and increase the capacity of its Development Centres in Edinburgh and Cambridge in 2019, creating 1,000 additional high-skill roles.
Although Amazon continues to lead when it comes to innovation and experimentation with robots and artificial intelligence, the business insists that humans are still central to its fulfilment centres, providing key skills that robots are unable to replicate. Still, the retail industry will be watching to see where the etailer takes AI and what its robot army will do next.
Amazon by numbers
- Amazon has invested more than £9.3bn in the UK since 2010
- Amazon UK will employ 27,500 people by the end of this year
- The UK is Amazon’s fourth largest market by revenue, after the US, Germany and Japan.
- Amazon has 285 million active users – defined as those that have purchased over the past 12 months.
- The first UK fulfilment centre opened in 1998 in Marston Gate
Amazon’s UK figures
- 17 – UK fulfilment centres
- 2 million sq ft – size of the Tilbury fulfilment centre
- 28 – equivalent size in football pitches
- 2,000 – number of employees at Tilbury
- 20,000 – number of seasonal roles Amazon is recruiting