Sunday, October 18, 2020

Amazon robots, workers speed stuff to you


Darnell Gilton (Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin Garcia).

     Darnell Gilton is “picking,” a process that takes six or seven seconds.
     “When the pod pulls up to me, I look at the screen,” explains Gilton. “The screen tells me what bin to pick the product from. I go to the bin, I grab the product, I bring it to the hand scanner here, I scan the product, the light tells me what tote to put the product in. Just like that.”
     The pod is a yellow tower about 7 feet high, each of four sides presenting a grid of merchandise tucked securely into bins, driven by an orange robot tucked underneath. The screen shows an item — in this case, a Real Techniques Miracle Complexion Sponge + Case located in cubby 2H. Gilton grabs it, scans it, tosses it into a yellow bin beyond a flashing green button, hitting the button to show he’s finished the task. Then he does it again, with a different product. About 350 times an hour.
     Gilton works at MDW7, the Amazon Robotics Fulfillment Center in Monee, one of nine in Illinois, with two more on the way. In all, there are 50 similar facilities in the United States, with another 100 worldwide, part of a staggering network of warehouses, distribution hubs, conveyers, chutes, trucks, pickers, drivers, supervisors and, of course, an omnipresent internet presence, which working together last year sold $280 billion worth of products and delivered 3.5 billion packages worldwide.  
     The advent of COVID-19 has made Amazon, already the most dominant online retailer in the world, more important than ever, as fear of going out in public has encouraged people to try e-commerce. Even as the president slashes at the Postal Service, trying to cut into Amazon’s business, it grows so fast the company, now worth $2 trillion, is hiring 5,500 new workers in Illinois, adding to the 23,000 already working in the state.
     Between that, and Amazon Prime Day last week — Prime Days actually, Tuesday and Wednesday, when the world’s largest e-retailer offered all sorts of sales for its 112 million U.S. members, more than a third of the entire population of the country, who get free shipping for a monthly Prime fee of about $12 — a visit seemed in order.
     MDW7 — “MDW” refers to the code for Midway; Amazon fulfillment centers are named for the nearest airport — is enormous, nearly a million square feet, and from the parking lot, that size immediately presents reportorial challenges.

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MDW7 in Monee (Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin Garcia).


  1. I had a similar job about 60 years ago for Curad Company in Bedford Park. As a naive newcomer, I was frequently called enjoined by my older fellow workers "not to kill the job." Jeff Bezos and his techies have made that a non problem of course, adding a "I love Lucy" aspect of keeping pace with an untiring machine. There's got to be a big turnover these days, but the same was true 60 years ago.


    1. Yeah, but Lucille Ball was hilarious trying to keep up. So was Chaplin in "Modern times." In Real Life, I don't think it would be so funny.

      Almost sounds like one of those Pavlovian animal behavior experiments, where the animal hits a button with his paw to get some food pellets, or a bird pecks it with his beak..."hitting the button to show he’s finished the task. Then he does it again, with a different product. About 350 times an hour."

      To me, that's a killer pace. You have 10.3 seconds to correctly do each "pick"...and if you can't keep up, I'm sure you're quickly broomed out the door and replaced.

      "Who wouldn't want to work here?" the kid asked. How about me, for starters? To begin with, money isn't everything. There are all those drawback, starting with that killer pace. Been there. Done that...though not to such an extreme.'re watched and monitored on CCTV for ten hours, and surely each "picker" has very strict quotas and few rest breaks. You're constantly being timed and weighed and measured. And if your robotic "measured output" is found wanting, no excuses necessary. And none accepted. No union that's got your (aching) back. You're gone. Hit the bricks.

      It's rather ironic that the facility is located in in "money." Raw, unadulterated capitalism at work--in which human beings are merely meant to be worked like any other machine...and if the machine wears out or breaks...just find another one. Plenty more where that defective one came from.

      Chances are, Darnell won't be there in another five years, but maybe that eager kid will. And in ten years, he'll likely be replaced, like so many others have been--by a robot who never burns out, never gets sick, never tires, never complains, never needs health insurance. Or any other benefits. How nice.

  2. Ah, Amazon, Amazon. I'm so conflicted about Amazon. However, unlike with my usual "Neil goes there, so you don't have to" attitude about many of your excursions, I'd love to spend an hour gee-whizzing through there. Since this weekend would have been the Architecture Center's "Open House Chicago" event, which is virtual this year, I'll consider this a bit of a substitute for actually touring some places.

    A typo, or something, in about the middle of the piece: "'Photo eyes and different cameras track the trays,' says Mike Stone, director of workplace health and safety for customer the fulfillment network, worldwide,"

    Fine reporting, wonderful photos and video. I remember -- uh, probably decades ago -- either reading or seeing an iterview with Jeff Bezos talking about the very early days of Amazon, working out of whatever their first building was when they only sold books. He talked about packing books into boxes on the floor, and how inconvenient it was. And then, he said, somebody suggested that they get a bunch of *tables* and put everything on the tables to make it easier, and he thought that was a fine idea. Perhaps he made that up; perhaps I'm misremembering. Regardless, to go from whatever that operation was like in 1994 to this is remarkable, whatever else one thinks about the company.

    There sure are a lot of empty parking spaces. I still have no idea how the whole thing works.

  3. Great column. Fascinating how they do this. Must have been a great tour.
    World is always changing, either change with it or get left behind. Amazon seems to be creating a lot jobs. And here in Illinois, where everyone is supposed to leaving.

  4. Once I saw a totally automated warehouse for frozen goods. It was vast, with racks of pallets of frozen pies stacked to a very high ceiling. When a pallet load was needed, robotic vehicles would slide over to the column where it was, then ascend rails to reach it, pluck it off the rack and bring it to the ground, where another vehicle would guide it to the trailer loading area.

    It was all very impressive. What was most impressive was that there was hardly any staff, and what few they were, could oversee the system from the comfort of a heated booth.

    Mourn the loss of jobs if you will, but for me, in the long run, anything that makes it possible to run a frozen warehouse without humans running around in well-below-freezing temperatures all day is an improvement.

  5. As conflicted as I am about Amazon as Jakash noted, I have to admire them for their customer service, as opposed to say, AT&T. I hate saying "customer service" and "AT&T" in the same sentence. I contacted Amazon c/s one time about an item I never received purchased from one of their outside vendors. The whole online transaction took maybe 10 minutes, and I had a refund in less than 12 hours. You gotta love any organization that can actually offer service.

  6. Amazon is doing to small business what Sears did to that same group right out of Chicago around the turn of the century. I guess you can call Sears' demise Karma (or just lack of foresight).
    The result is the same. Small business suffers and the employees of the near monopoly aren't getting pay raises at the same rate as Mr. Bezos. His wealth has increased dramatically since the pandemic started.


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