Touring an Amazon Fulfillment Center (OAK4)

Scott Loftesness visiting OAK4

A few days ago I signed up for a tour of one of the nearby Amazon Fulfillment Centers – OAK4 – located in Tracy, California. I was pleasantly surprised to find availability for a tour almost immediately – didn’t have to wait for availability. You can check availability of a tour near you on this page. You can also read more information about what you’ll see on a Fulfillment Center tour.

I was one of about ten people taking the tour. We met in the lobby of OAK4 and were greeted by a team of four Amazon associates who led us on the tour of the facility. They escorted us to a large briefing room where we learned more about the process flow of goods through the Center and got outfitted with headphones and a wireless receiver so that we could hear the voice of the tour leader as she took us through the white noise of the Center. I’m wearing mine in the phone above!

I particularly enjoyed seeing the “stow” process – where incoming goods are randomly placed into bins on pods that robots move around the facility. In my picture, you can see the pods in the background – yellow stacks powered underneath by Kiva robots that whisk the pods around from place to place. Fascinating to watch the movement in action!

Anyway, back to my fascination with “stow” – because it’s a random process. Here’s Amazon’s description:

Instead of storing items as a retail store would—electronics on one aisle, books on another—all of the inventory at Amazon fulfillment centers is stowed randomly. Yellow, tiered “pods” stack bins full of unrelated items, all of them tracked by computers. This counterintuitive method actually makes it easier for associates to quickly pick and pack a wide variety of products.

The “stowers” job is a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle. Up comes a pod of bins delivered by a robot. The stower has a table of boxes filled with all manner of different items – selects one of the items and finds a place to stow it in one of the bins. The computer tracks this item placement so it knows where each and every item is located – in which bin in which pod. When a order arrives, the pod is delivered by the robot to the “picker” who retrieves the item and places it into a tote that will contain all of the items for that particular order. From there, the tote moves on to be packed into a box, labelled and sent off for shipment.

It’s amazing to see all of this operating at such massive scale. If you have an opportunity to visit one of the twenty or so Amazon Fulfillment Centers near you that offer tours, I highly recommend taking the tour. It’s fascinating! Thanks especially to the team at OAK4 for taking our group on such a great tour!

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