Amazon Fulfilment Centre visit — Wed 30th Oct 2019

In the days when Doncaster Rovers’ home ground was Belle Vue, the town was proud of the fact that it had the largest play­ing area of any club in the Football League, at 110 yards long by 72 yards wide.

But, in a town where size obvi­ously mat­ters, the old Rovers’ pitch would be dwarfed by the nearby Amazon Fulfilment Centre — a ware­house or dis­tri­bu­tion centre to you and me – which covers an area equi­val­ent to no fewer than 14 Premier League foot­ball pitches on the iPort Commercial Park just off the M18.

In round fig­ures that comes out at one mil­lion square feet, and no one among our party of 27 Stumperlowe Probus Club mem­bers who vis­ited the Amazon Fulfilment Centre today would deny that the first thing that hits you as you drive into the vis­it­ors’ car park, and even more so as you enter on foot through the main doors of the build­ing, is the sheer size of the place.

In Amazon par­lance, the iPort ware­house is LBA2. All Amazon ful­fil­ment centres are code named after their nearest inter­na­tional air­port, and when LBA1 was opened in 2010, closer to Doncaster and on the oppos­ite side of the M18, Doncaster Sheffield Airport was hand­ling only a frac­tion of the freight it does today. So Leeds Bradford it was.

Amazon began life only 25 years ago as an online seller of books but has grown to become the largest inter­net com­pany by rev­enue in the world. As of 2018 it employed almost 650,000 people world­wide, of whom more than 250,000 work full-time in their so-called ful­fil­ment net­work.

In the early Amazon days, the ware­house and its office in Seattle were one and the same. A hand­ful of employ­ees shared the work­space along with shelves and shelves of books. Over time, one ware­house became sev­eral hun­dred and the goods passing through came to include elec­tron­ics, soft­ware, video games, cloth­ing, fur­niture, food, toys and jew­ellery. By 2015, Amazon had sur­passed Walmart as the most valu­able retailer in the United States by market cap­it­al­isa­tion.

During our two-hour visit, there were 170 employ­ees – or ‘asso­ci­ates’ as they are known – on duty within the Doncaster build­ing, and every one of them, if not driv­ing some kind of high-reach fork­lift or other vehicle, was busy pick­ing, pack­ing, wrap­ping and send­ing on their way the hun­dreds of thou­sands of par­cels which make their way through the centre every day.

For although every move is heav­ily reli­ant on com­puters and bar­codes to main­tain some semb­lance of order, making sure that the right pack­age is on the right con­veyor belt at the right time, the human ele­ment was also very much in evid­ence. People who had come expect­ing to see banks of robots being con­trolled by per­haps one or two oper­at­ives in a con­trol centre might have been sur­prised.

They’re keen on acronyms at Amazon. My favour­ite in the whole pro­cess was SLAM, which stands for scan/label/apply mani­fest and is a stretch of con­veyor belt, or rather rollers of the type you see in air­port secur­ity, where the bar­coded pack­ages pass through a series of scan­ners. They then have self-adhesive name and address labels lit­er­ally blown on to the sur­face of the card­board by air pres­sure, rather than phys­ic­ally being stamped on, which could damage the con­tents, as the pack­age is routed to the cor­rect out­bound truck. From there it is trans­por­ted to a ‘sort­a­tion’ centre (another Americanism, but at least they spelt ‘centre’ cor­rectly) from where it would wing its way to a cus­tomer.

Our tour slot was too early to have lunch before­hand and too late to have lunch after­wards. So for 21 of our mem­bers the day star­ted with a late full English break­fast and mugs of tea or coffee at The Stockyard truck stop on the Hellaby Industrial Estate, just off Junction 1 of the M18. This was greatly enjoyed, but a sug­ges­tion that The Stockyard could be a pos­sible venue for our annual lunch­eon might be voted down by our wives.