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EXCLUSIVE: First Look at Amazon's new robotic fulfillment hub in Mass.

Amazon robotic fulfillment center, North Andover, MA
Amazon's robotic fulfillment center in North Andover, Mass.

Amazon is now operating a robotic fulfillment center in Massachusetts, streamlining the delivery of sortable items in the Northeast U.S.

Chain Store Age recently took an exclusive tour of Amazon’s new fulfillment center in North Andover, Mass. (known as BOS3 – the three letters are the abbreviation for Boston, the nearest city with a major airport), its first robotics fulfillment center in the state of Massachusetts. Opened in March 2024, the more than 3.8-million-sq.-ft., five-story facility processes hundreds of thousands of small packages each day through 12 miles of interconnected conveyors.

All products handled at the center are sortable and have a maximum size of 18.5 inches for any of their three dimensions – or roughly the size of a kitchen microwave or smaller. Larger, non-sortable items are processed at other facilities, such as the Amazon BOS7 fulfillment center in Fall River, Mass. 

The fulfillment process begins when items are received at the facility’s inbound dock on the first floor and placed into totes that are then brought by conveyor belt to associate stations on the second floor. 

Workers scan items and are directed to place them in units called "pods" which feature 11 rows of storage space and automatically travel to them, transported by a flat, four-wheel robotic dolly called "Drive." As soon as a product is stored in a pod, it is listed for sale on Amazon.com.

Sergiy Sushalskyy, GM of the Amazon North Andover robotics fulfillment center, explained to Chain Store Age the AI-based process Amazon uses to determine how to stock its regional fulfillment centers.

"We use an automated system that sees demand for different items in different areas," said Sushalskyy. "It creates a demand forecast based on that information and allocates items to fulfillment centers across the country to ensure shorter delivery times."

Once an item in a pod is ordered, the pod is automatically brought to an associate station by a Drive robot. The desired product is displayed on a screen in front of the associate with a description and photo. As pods travel the floor, they pass light towers that take a photo of their inventory. With AI technology, Amazon recognizes and verifies the content of each pod.

The associate retrieves the product and scans it with an overhead scanner for verification, with a green blink indicating they have the correct product, and places it in an empty tote which is automatically provided via conveyor. 

After the tote is filled with an order, the associate pushes it onto a conveyor belt for downstairs packing and a new, empty tote automatically takes its place. When an order is filled, the system will hold it for a period of time in case the customer decides to add to it, enabling a full purchase to be shipped in one package for more efficiency and sustainability.

When totes travel via conveyor belt downstairs, a sorter automatically routes them to different packing process paths, based on factors such as whether a tote contains a single item or multiple items. 

The facility features both traditional and automated “Smart Pac” packing stations, with delicate products such as liquid and glass routed to traditional stations that still feature high-tech touches such as an automatically assigned box based on order size and a machine-cut length of packing tape that is the perfect length to seal the package.

In addition, some items are routed to a machine which automatically cuts a sheet of corrugated cardboard and forms it into a box which the exact size to fit the product without need for plastic dunnage, making delivery more sustainable and cost-effective.

At all packing stations, after sealing, packages have a label affixed that does not display any customer shipping information (to protect shopper privacy) but transmits that data to a machine called "SLAM" (scan, label, apply manifest) that automatically places a shipping label and then routes the package to a specific trailer for delivery.

Some packages are sorted for delivery by an automated robotic arm called "Robin" which uses computer vision to pick select packages from the conveyor belt for placement on a Drive robot that takes them to the correct loading dock. 

Others are automatically routed via conveyor belt to a cart which will notify an associate with a blinking light when it is full and ready to be pushed to the appropriate trailer.

Amazon focuses on worker safety

Throughout the tour, Sushalskyy stressed that Amazon makes the safety of its human associates its paramount concern in all of its facilities, including robotic fulfillment centers. 

Amazon relies on robotic automation to handle repetitive movements and the lifting and transport of heavy objects, leaving human associates to participate in workflows that involve more fluid and less stressful movements and to handle lighter items, said Sushalskyy.

In addition, he explained how employees called Amazon Floor Managers (AFMs) who manually respond when a pod or a Drive robot has an issue wear special vests called Amazon "Robotic Tech Vests." This robotics-designed product was created to keep AFMs safe when they need to enter a space in order to fix a robotic system or retrieve fallen items. 

Built-in sensors alert Amazon’s robotics system to a vest wearer’s presence, and the robotic technology slows down to avoid collision. The vest is designed to work in tandem with the robots’ existing obstacle avoidance detection system.

Robots closest to the floor manager will completely stop, while robots further away will move much more slowly, and remain in restricted movement mode until the floor manager has safely exited the area.

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