Amazon's deliberately chaotic warehouse system


An interesting photo-essay, but it fails to consider the human aspect, especially the question of how workers are treated as they make this oh-so-efficient system function. I recommend Mac McClelland’s Mother Jones story on working in an Amazon warehouse as a good place to start.


Man, can you imagine how badly they’d be screwed if their database that stores where everything is got horribly broken?

Reading your comment along with your icon gives the comment a whole different meaning!

Someone should hack into their system and find the Ark of the Covenant.


It would be like Borges’ library. Somewhere in the whole area is the perfect set of items for everyone (since their inventory is infinite*). They probably even have a list with the precise locations of the items that would be perfect for you. It must be somewhere in the warehouse, if only you could find it.

*not really.


Seems like an ideal place for Rollerblades or Segways (the latter probably nixxed for the cost).

With chaotic storage, how do they deal with an employee placing an item wrong? It’s lost forever? Putting it in the wrong slot is equivalent to destroying/stealing it.

And how do they deal with the issue of shrinkage/shoplifting? Are jewelry and small items treated differently?

It’s not chaotic. It’s actually the opposite. Warehouse management systems in nearly all industries use this same approach. It just looks chaotic because humans can’t process the vast amount of data required to manage all the locations of hundreds of thousands of SKUs.


very tight control in ingress and egress. You don’t leave the facility for your break – not even to go to your car. See the Mother Jones article referenced above.

That’s the really frustrating thing - when you think of all the main street jobs that have been lost to these warehouses, it would give some comfort to know that the people working there all had great working standards. They are each taking a few people’s jobs and saving massively on retail space, so they should be making really good salaries without having to work too hard, right? Of course not. What a crazy, communist idea. Workers are unskilled drones that deserve none of the benefits of their company’s success, and function best when they can easily be replaced and are motivated by fear. ‘Job creators’ are the only ones who provide any real value to the economy, and they should be commended for their services to efficiency.

My city in England suffered quite a bit from the recession - potteries that were hundreds of years old were shut down, while the only hope for the return of some jobs were the huge warehouses that were built around the city. I wasn’t sure that it was such a bad thing that a number of them never opened.


Given that The Traveling Salesman Problem is NP hard, I’m gonna guess that the paths given to the pickers are not in fact ‘optimal’.

I wonder how up to date this info is. I was under the impression that Amazon used the Kiva robot system to pick orders, and not humans.

No, lots of humans there. Yet.

I saw something about one of these amazon warehouses that has robots to do the fetching. The robots would drive out in an optimal route to pick up several bins then return to a station where a human would pick the correct items out of the bins and box them up.

It struck me as rather dystopian in that the humans were basically pick/place robots, and their only useful attribute was the ability to recognize objects and determine the correct size of box to put them in.

Given 100+ warehouses built over years handling various types of goods they presumably have more and less automated warehouses.

The Traveling Salesman Problem has been solved for the number of stops required for a given Amazon order. I highly doubt anyone is ordering 85,900 items.


This seems like one of those temporary situations. Moore’s law and the rapid advance of robotics and programming suggest that within a decade the warehouses will be unlit expanses with thousands of robots zipping about picking orders (not bipedal, more likely on tracks) using ever improving optimization routines (ie. handing off items between robots/pickers to maximize optimal routes).

Right now it is a dystopic nightmare workplace, in a decade or so it will be a massive, unlit system with as close to zero staff as possible.

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Gods, that’s infinite levels of horror worse than I imagined. Guess I’ll be making presents/buying local again this year.

Amazon uses the same inventory placing concept we used in the military warehouse I ran in the early 80’s. We would receive a daily printout of the inventory and locations for use when the system was down. If we made issues or gains when the system was down we would back-fit all transactions. Inventory was always fun. We would produce a printout by location and count the stock. A re-count sheet would be created for all locations with differences from the computer stock levels. Once the count and re-count was verified adjustments would be made to the inventory. We did all this with batch processing so accuracy depended on the timing of the last run.

Damn, those Amazon-robots are coming along, they look almost like real humans by now.

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NP Hard doesn’t mean that it’s impossible