Finding Stuff Within Amazon’s Jungle

NBC News provided a look inside one of's fulfillment centers, and boy, could the online retailer use a little help from RFID.
Published: December 11, 2012

NBC NewsRock Center With Brian Williams recently produced a segment in which correspondent Harry Smith offered TV viewers a glimpse inside an “fulfillment center” in Arizona (Amazon doesn’t use the terms “warehouse” or “distribution center”). The center is one of 40 such facilities throughout the United States. While the operation’s size and scope are awe-inspiring, the means by which the firm picks items for shipping seem, well, rather prehistoric (view the video).

Before I get into that, let me say up front that I have ordered many items from over the years, and have never had the wrong item shipped to me—and only once was an item I ordered out of stock. Moreover, I don’t know of any friends or family members who have ever received the wrong item. It is that kind of accuracy record that keeps people going back to Amazon, where online sales are growing far faster than in-store sales.

So this news piece caught my eye, since I’ve always wanted to know how Amazon does it. I know the company doesn’t employ radio frequency identification, so how does it always find and ship the correct items within a few days?

Well, as it turns out, the method is not very high-tech.

According to Smith, Amazon does not have planograms within its facility, nor does it organize items by category—for example, locating all electronics items within one area. Rather, goods are placed on shelves pretty much willy-nilly. The only reason for choosing a particular spot, Smith says, is that the item fits on that shelf. That is, shelves are different sizes and shapes, and so items get slotted in wherever they fit.

The facility is the size of 28 football fields—1.2 million square feet—and items are “shelved in no discernible order,” Smith says, adding, “This is crazy.”

The piece does not go into much detail regarding the system of locating goods. Shelves have bar-code labels, and it appears that when an item is received, it is placed onto a shelf, the label of which is scanned. When an item needs to be picked, a worker proceeds to the proper shelf location, finds that product and scans a bar code to confirm that it has been picked.

It all works, but I wonder how much time is wasted when an item is put away and the shelf location isn’t scanned. People do get distracted or make mistakes, and I would bet there are many things in that warehouse that are off the grid—items Amazon can’t find because no shelf location was scanned.

The folks at Amazon are obviously very smart, and I’m sure they’ve looked at RFID. My guess is they calculated the cost of tagging every item and the cost of the reader infrastructure, and determined that the benefits RFID could provide do not yet outweigh the expense. That will change as the price of tags and systems—such as Mojix‘s phased-array antenna technology, which can cover large areas—comes down.

And, boy, when the equation shifts in favor of RFID, I bet the folks at Amazon’s fulfillments centers will feel fulfilled. Imagine knowing, in real time, where everything is located, versus simply hoping an item was put on the correct shelf.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor’s Note archive or RFID Connect.