Intelligent Machines

Inside Amazon

At a new fulfillment center in New Jersey, humans and robots work together in a highly efficient system.

Amazon’s is the world’s leading e-commerce company, and it is pioneering the use of automation in new areas of work.

Some of the secrets behind Amazon’s phenomenal success as an online retailer can be discovered inside a million-square-foot warehouse that sits amid bucolic scenery in the town of Robbinsville, New Jersey. The building is one of Amazon’s most advanced fulfillment centers, and it houses technologies that allow the company to deliver products to customers at amazing speed. Goods are identified, sorted, and packaged with computer-assisted precision, while employees work in tight collaboration with the plant’s automated systems in shifts that run around the clock.

Loose products move through Amazon’s center in yellow crates.

Upon arrival, each new product is identified using a computer vision system that catalogues it rapidly, feeding its weight and dimensions into a central tracking system. At the heart of the building, items stored on tall, square shelves are kept stocked by humans working with a team of 2,000 squat orange robots. The robots zip around the storage area, picking up shelves and either arranging them in neat rows for storage or bringing them over to the human workers, who stack or pick from them. Further along the fulfillment line, workers charged with packing up orders for shipping are automatically given the optimal size of shipping box and even the correct amount of packing tape. Before those boxes are sent to trucks, a system weighs them to make sure the correct products are inside.

This story is part of our September/October 2015 Issue
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Products are packed together in shipping boxes at the workstations shown here.
A worker checks shipping boxes headed toward a bank of waiting trucks. The boxes are automatically sorted according to their destination.
A worker stands in one of the packing workstations.

One of Amazon’s robots brings a shelf laden with products over to a human picker.
The crates carrying products destined for Amazon’s customers travel more than eight miles on conveyors that stretch throughout the building.
A figure made from boxes reminds staff about workplace rules.

One worker retrieves products from a robotic shelf.
A worker sorts crates.

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