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A place for EVERYTHING

Dean Schermerhorn
An Amazon associate performs "'random stow" of items into "pick mod," a system that creates more room by not story similar items together.
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The Amazon Fulfillment Center at 8000 N. Virginia, off Lemmon Drive, in Reno employs a variety of technologies to expedite delivery of customers’ orders. (See “Amazon shows off fulfillment center,” May 4, 2015.) One of the key elements in its processes, however, relies on human decision making and expertise.

The more than 600,000 square foot facility places items on shelves using “random stow.” Rather than placing all of one type of item together in one place (all CDs here and all vacuum cleaners over there), an Amazon employee, or “associate,” takes each item from a bin and places it in any space in which that item will fit. Each of these associates has a hand scanner, which he or she uses to record the location of that item in a bin within the pick module (“pick mod”), the shelving unit.

“We know that our associates do a really good job of optimizing the space inside a bin and can make really good decisions with a variety of shapes and sizes when they stow,” said Paul Pace, director of operations.

“We can direct certain long, skinny items versus small items to different bin shapes. After that our associates can see where there are open spaces and understand what items they have yet to stow and make decisions based on what they have left and what space is available,” Pace explained. “Random stow allows us to optimize the cubic space inside a building, which allows us to have more inventory and more selection in one spot.” With more items in one location, Amazon can get those items to customers more quickly.

The pick mods are arranged in rows separated by very narrow aisles (VNAs), an Amazon innovation. The associates travel through the VNAs in powered industrial trucks (PIT), a specially designed type of forklift.

The main technological innovation behind random stow is the electronic track that runs in the floor in each VNA and guides the PIT and associate up and down the aisle, which is just wide enough to allow the PIT to pass through. This enables Amazon to fit as many pick mods as possible inside a fulfillment center.

The hand scanners used by the associates also are an innovation. As soon as an associate puts an item into the storage queue and scans it, that item goes up on Amazon.com for purchase.

Amazon has used random stow since the company’s beginning in 1995. The Reno Fulfillment Center has been shipping products since January 2015 and has more than 600 full-time, hourly employees and the same number of hand scanners. The facility also has about 200 PITs. The center receives and ships tens of thousands of unique items per day and operates seven days a week, 20 hours a day.

The Reno facility is one of the tallest Amazon fulfillment centers. So the pick mods are about 30 feet tall, allowing the building to hold millions of items.

The picking process, in which items are found and taken from the pick mods, is more automated, and that involves proprietary technology.

While Amazon ships its own items from the Fulfillment Center, it also offers a service known as FBA, Fulfillment by Amazon, which is designed for small and medium sized businesses. Business owners who want to focus on customers and not on storage and shipping, can ship products to Amazon where they are placed in the pick mods, and treated like Amazon products. Amazon thus facilitates the customer fulfillment side while building partnerships with small businesses.

The human touch coupled with amazing technology enables Amazon to stow seemingly every item under the sun in its Reno Fulfillment Center.