Inside an Amazon warehouse, robots' ways rub off on humans
NEW YORK — The last person to touch an item at an Amazon fulfillment center is the packer, whose job is to stick each order in a box and tape it shut.
As with most jobs, being a packer is more complicated than it looks. Michael Waterman, a packer at Amazon's Staten Island warehouse, told me that when he started, he would grab each piece of tape too quickly, and it would invariably stick to his gloves. He ruined two pairs in his first two days.
Later, he overcompensated by waiting too long, at which point the tape had lost its stickiness. Only after some experimentation did he find the sweet spot.
And yet, being a packer isn't that complicated. When I asked Waterman whether he had run into similar problems in other aspects of his job — like figuring out how long a piece of tape to use — he demurred. 'The right amount of tape will always come out,' Waterman said, referring to the automatic tape dispenser at his side.
My trip to Amazon's Staten Island center had its origins two months earlier. I was writing about a former worker named Justin Rashad Long, who contended that he had been fired for speaking out about working conditions there. Beyond the claim of retaliation, Long said laboring at Amazon had been a tremendous slog: Employees worked long shifts with few breaks. Managers held them to unreasonable goals. The time they spent waiting in line at metal detectors — to discourage theft — lengthened their day.
The company disputed these allegations, in some cases with extensive data. It invited me to come see the place for myself. (Amazon gives public tours at certain fulfillment centers, but not on Staten Island.) So, in mid-May, I spent a few hours observing workers and asking them about their jobs, with a press chaperone in tow. By the end, I had concluded that both sides had a point.
The workplace, with more than 2,500 full-time employees, seemed more humane than the picture Long painted. The general manager, Chris Colvin, knew many of his employees' names and bantered with them amiably. The workers, in turn, seemed invested in the company. The center had recently held a contest for their children to illustrate job safety practices, like bending at the knees and wearing gloves. A few dozen drawings were still on the wall.
But underlying Long's charge was the idea that Amazon treats workers as if they were something less than people — that its obsession with optimizing fulfillment centers for a world of one-day delivery requires a system of stifling routines, rules and metrics. That system can make workers feel patronized and spied on. It can crowd out personal initiative.
There seemed to be something to the picture Long painted, though the problem may be less with Amazon than with technology itself.
SOFTWARE LOOKS OVER YOUR SHOULDER
Every day, about 50 truckloads of merchandise turn up at the warehouse's receiving dock. One group of workers unloads the goods, and another group — known as 'water spiders' — distributes them to work stations. There, a third group, known as stowers, transfers the items onto what are called pods. These are large shelving units that hold several dozen bins, which are attached to robots that move through the building.
Of the entry-level jobs at Amazon, the stower's arguably provides the most room for decision-making. Stowers choose the bin where they want to place each item, keeping in mind that they should make the task as easy as possible for the worker, known as a picker, who will have to grab items out of the bin. Stowers should, for example, avoid obscuring one item with another. 'Our customers are the pickers,' a stower named Jing Zhang told me.
Zhang seemed like a state-of-the-art Amazon employee — someone who saw the world through the eyes of a manager. 'I try to find ways to make me more efficient,' he said. He figured out how to reduce wasted movement by unpacking the box closest to the shelving unit first, then replacing it with the next-closest box, rather than wandering to and from other boxes.
Still, even Zhang and his fellow stowers must work with Amazon's software looking over their shoulder. If a stower attempts to stick, say, a bottle of sunscreen in a bin next to one that already has such a bottle of sunscreen in it, the bin will light up to signal that this is not allowed. Adjacent bins with identical items can confuse the pickers. The same thing happens if a stower tries to put heavy items too high on the pod, or too much weight on either side.
After the pods are full, the robots move them across a large caged area. If an item falls down along the way, or a robot stalls, a worker on what's known as the amnesty team will venture into the cage to sort it out. The worker wears a special vest that allows the robot to detect his or her location and stop before it gets too close.