“Work Hard. Have Fun. Make History:” these words greeted us when we walked into Amazon’s fulfilment centre at Rugeley, UK. Imagine the plight of someone who has spent her life in cubicles for the past seven and a half years, and suddenly finds herself staring at an 800,000 sq. feet expanse, most of which is covered by this huge conveyor belt. Segregating, packaging, sorting, identifying defects, you name the task, and it is being conducted somewhere along that conveyor belt. First and foremost, the only conveyor belts that I had seen so far were the ones in airport baggage-claims, and secondly, not only were those conveyor belts minuscule in proportions compared to this one, but they were also puny in terms of the tasks they would perform. My excitement and curiosity at Amazon’s Rugeley Fulfilment Centre knew no bounds. I stared in awe, imbibing every bit of information that I could, as one of our alumni, Sid Yadwad, who joined Amazon’s Pathways Program from last year’s class walked us through the huge factory.
Sometime in February a group of us Oxford MBA students got an opportunity to pay a visit to Amazon’s Fulfilment Centre at Rugeley. Thus, armed with enough pizzas, munchies, juices, card/board games, and books (for the forthcoming examinations) to keep us occupied during our journey, we set out in a bus. The bus journey reminded us of excursions we would have as kids. While some took a power nap, a few others munched on pizzas and a few of us engaged ourselves in a card-game called ‘Royals’. Before long, we reached the factories of ‘earth’s most customer-centric company’. Little did we know that what looked like a moderately sized building from outside, actually housed a factory as large as six football fields!
The ‘fulfilment centre’ is an Amazon term applied to its warehouses: a vast, intelligent, self-sufficient, networked factory which runs in the background of the Amazon website. It is the brick and mortar behind the button that is clicked when a consumer purchases anything, starting from a rubber ducky to an expensive piece of machinery. It also serves as a drop-off point for several of those vendors who sell their products through Amazon (commonly called the ‘Fulfilment by Amazon’ or FBA programme). More than 2 million of such third parties sell their products on Amazon, which accounts for almost 40% of the retail giant’s merchandise. In the past, Amazon has borne the brunt of several brick and mortar stores (including Borders Group) which had to go under and liquidate their assets, as consumers started adopting more tech-savvy ways of making purchases. On several occasions Amazon has been blamed to have stolen the customer base of these brick and mortar stores. Initiatives such as Fulfilment by Amazon, thus makes the company more likeable, as several third parties who lack the infrastructure and expertise to sell online and make deliveries can now leverage Amazon’s framework and processes to run their respective businesses. On the other hand, Amazon doesn’t have to worry about inventory management and control for these vendors, and still makes a sizeable profit by providing its fulfilment centre services to these third parties. Fulfilment by Amazon can really be thought of as an extension of Amazon Web Services where Amazon makes its technical infrastructure and leftover capacity available to third parties for use at very reasonable rates.
As we walked on, Sid gathered us around a central mezzanine which provides panoramic views of the entire fulfilment centre. It is also over here that there are several rows of inventory, stacked in random, yes, you heard it right, random order. Items are shelved where they fit in, to conserve space. Moreover, each item comes with a bar-code which serves as the basic unit of tracking it anywhere in the fulfilment centre. In the heart of the fulfilment centre, are these huge yellow boxes: the basic logistical units, which can be seen travelling on the conveyer belts carrying items to be shipped. The ‘inbounding’ process refers to the collection of the items as they are received from the vendors, marking them with bar-codes (so that they are now trackable), and shelving them. These items are then collected and shipped based on the orders (outbound process). The yellow boxes travel miles and miles on the conveyer belts, sometimes items being unloaded, sometimes items being loaded, until they are finally packaged, and labelled by these robots. The labelling process is pretty intriguing as well. The bar-code on the item is merely scanned by a scanning machine to decipher the details of the shipment, and a label is printed based on these details, all in a matter of a few seconds.
I, for one, did not want to leave the factory floor. It was the first time I was witnessing something of this scale. Not only was it an exciting experience for me, it was also the first time that the concepts of supply-chain, and everything that we had learnt in our operations management class was coming into life. One such instance was when the sight of a Kanban card suddenly piqued my interest and reminded me of what Professor Matthias had taught us about the Toyota Production System. Having feasted our eyes on the supply-chain marvel that runs Amazon, we returned to the offices upstairs where Sid spoke to us about his responsibilities as an Ops Manager. It was both scary, as well as thrilling to learn that he manages a team of 600 people! “Wow! Rimi Chatterjee, you should’ve been paying more attention in your Leadership Principles classes,” I heard myself saying! Nonetheless, we really enjoyed walking through the warehouses of Amazon, and witnessing the virtual orders made on the website take tangible shape, as the nimble criss-cross of miles and miles of conveyer belt transported each item from its origin to its destination relentlessly. It’s no wonder that the domain relentless.com actually redirects to Amazon.com! What started as a fun trip ended with excited discussions about what we had just seen, guessing games on which one of us would be conducting this tour next year, and anticipations amongst a few lucky ones among us who would get the privilege of donning the brand of an ‘Amazonian’ post MBA.Back to top of article