It’s a busy time for our cus­tomers, it’s a busy time for us...

Manchester Evening News - - NEWS - He­len.john­[email protected]­i­tymir­ror.com @he­len­j83MEN

AS I walk past a set of metal de­tec­tors and en­ter a win­dow­less ware­house the size of three and a half foot­ball pitches, I’m im­me­di­ately struck by the sheer size, speed and re­lent­less­ness of the op­er­a­tion un­fold­ing be­fore my eyes.

There’s a con­stant hum from eight miles worth of ever-mov­ing con­veyor belts that snake around the room and con­nect the floors on hel­ter-skel­ter like struc­tures called ‘spi­rala­tors.’

Some are filled with an eclec­tic mix of prod­ucts – from books, to tooth­brushes to ra­dios, while on oth­ers, a seem­ingly in­fi­nite stream of card­board wrapped parcels with fa­mil­iar brand­ing whizzes past.

Wel­come to the lo­cal nerve cen­tre of Ama­zon – its gi­ant fa­cil­ity on the out­skirts of Wythen­shawe.

Think of on­line shop­ping and whether you like it or not, one name in­stantly springs to mind.

Over the years, Ama­zon has come un­der fire for ev­ery­thing from the amount of tax it pays, to its im­pact on the tra­di­tional high street and most no­tably, the work­ing con­di­tions of its staff. But love it or loathe it, it’s now im­pos­si­ble not to no­tice the com­pany’s un­stop­pable march on Greater Manch­ester.

In the new year it’s due to open an­other head­quar­ters in the city cen­tre, while over the past three years it has opened three of what it calls ‘ful­fil­ment cen­tres’ - huge ware­houses where its or­ders are pro­cessed – in Warrington, Bolton and near Manch­ester Air­port.

Ama­zon it seems, are keen to chal­lenge neg­a­tive per­cep­tions by throw­ing open­ing the doors – invit­ing the pub­lic in for daily tours, and wel­com­ing press too.

Three weeks be­fore Christmas and in the re­cep­tion area at MAN 1 (it’s named af­ter the air­port) or­ange and black dec­o­ra­tions sit alongside a large sign on the wall that reads ‘two days since the last re­portable in­ci­dent’ (that is, work­place ac­ci­dents that have to be re­ported to the HSE).

As gen­eral man­ager Neil Travis reels off facts about the cen­tre – telling me for in­stance that no one here is on less than £9.50 an hour – he shows me a map of the world on the wall, on which staff have been asked to pin flags to in­di­cate where they are from.

Most are pinned to the UK and the rest of Europe and Africa, with the odd pins dot­ted as far away as Alaska and Aus­tralia.

Neil is also quick to point out the games tables and mini golf set that have been set up for staff to use dur­ing breaks. He won’t be pinned down on ex­actly how many parcels are mov­ing through the cen­tre ev­ery day right now, other than that the fig­ure is in the mil­lions.

To cope with de­mand they’ve taken on 500 sea­sonal work­ers, to join the 1,000 per­ma­nent mem­bers of staff who al­ready work at the site.

He’s also keen to share what they are do­ing to boost staff morale over the com­ing weeks.

“It in­cludes prize give­aways, com­pe­ti­tions, events and free Christmas lunches.

“We fo­cus on the fun as­pect,” he says. “It’s a busy time for our cus­tomers, it’s a busy time for us, Ama­zon is su­per busy.

“It’s the tenth Black Fri­day since we brought it over to the UK, this was the big­gest-ever for the UK, for Ama­zon, but we plan this all year round, we know what it’s go­ing to be about, we know what we need to do to de­light our cus­tomers so we plan all year round to make sure we have the right ca­pac­ity in the right place.

“We are go­ing to get more or­ders and we in­crease our peo­ple to help cope with that so we can pro­vide a re­ally re­laxed, safe, fun en­vi­ron­ment”.

The cen­tre of the vast 270,000 square foot ware­house is dom­i­nated by thousands of bright yel­low stor­age racks, so many that it’s a strug­gle to see where they ac­tu­ally end, all heav­ing with items for sale.

The racks are sur­rounded by a huge fence, around which there are hun­dreds of work­sta­tions manned by staff, although I no­tice they are all spaced slightly too far apart for col­leagues to be able to com­fort­ably talk to one an­other.

Then there’s the army of bright or­ange ro­bots, which scurry around the floor fer­ry­ing racks to each work­sta­tion through gaps in the fenc­ing.

First to the ‘stow­ers’ who record the in­ven­tory and fill the racks up, and then on to the ‘pick­ers,’ who se­lect items for or­ders and send them back on to the con­veyor.

Neil says us­ing ro­bots and racks means he can store 50 per cent more in­ven­tory than would be pos­si­ble if the space was filled by tra­di­tional aisles. That ap­proach would re­quire space. Ro­bots don’t need space.

They sit squat to the ground, and ma­noeu­vre about un­der­neath each rack.

And rather than fill­ing each rack with the same item, the stow­ers are fill­ing each one with a mix of dif­fer­ent prod­ucts.

Neil ex­plains this is to keep things mov­ing, should every­one hap­pen to be or­der­ing the same thing at the same time.

“If I put in 2,000 dif­fer­ent items and have 200 pick­ers on it I can pick 200 things at the same time,” he says. Ev­ery­thing it seems, is geared up with speed and ef­fi­ciency in mind. But de­spite all the soft­ware and robotics, the truly im­pres­sive el­e­ment is the sheer hu­man ef­fort that goes into the process. Much has been writ­ten about what the work­ing con­di­tions are like for staff in Ama­zon’s ful­fil­ment cen­tres.

It is of course, near im­pos­si­ble to get a full in­sight into pre­cisely what it’s like just by spend­ing just two hours here on a guided tour.

Derek Honey­man, who man­ages the ‘sin­gles’ de­part­ment, the team re­spon­si­ble for or­ders con­tain­ing a sin­gle item, tells me about his ca­reer pro­gres­sion with the com­pany.

He moved to Manch­ester from Dundee look­ing for work, and has been here since the early days of the ware­house in 2016.

“It’s a fan­tas­tic job,” he says. “There was no work in Dundee, I was strug­gling to get work.

“I moved with £80 and a case. I started as a picker. Three years on,

I’m a man­ager.” An­drew ‘Jimmy’ Rid­dell’s role at the cen­tre, which he de­scribes in his own words as ‘ro­bot wran­gler’ has seen him travel to Bos­ton in the US to train with Ama­zon Robotics.

He is one of a num­ber of ex-forces staff em­ployed by Ama­zon, which has a ded­i­cated pro­gramme for recruiting ex-mil­i­tary per­son­nel.

“I’d like to say it’s the sec­ond best job in the world, be­cause I don’t work for NASA,” he says.

We stop to watch one of the hun­dreds of stow­ers as he scans each in­di­vid­ual item – from that mo­ment on, it is reg­is­tered as be­ing in stock and avail­able to buy.

On the other side of the ware­house, pick­ers are do­ing the same process but in re­verse, se­lect­ing items for or­ders at speed, and plac­ing them back onto the con­veyor.

The sys­tem has cal­cu­lated which rack is best suited to hold each item, and the ro­bots ferry it to his sta­tion.

One of the pods he has to un­load into the racks con­tains two huge tubs of pro­tein pow­der.

As I watch him go­ing up and down a step lad­der to reach each shelf, I mar­vel at the en­ergy it must take for him and his col­leagues to be able to do this count­less times a day, through­out a 10-hour shift.

Neil says the most bought items which have been pass­ing through the cen­tre over the past month in­clude Yan­kee Can­dles, elec­tric tooth­brushes and Ama­zon’s own prod­ucts, such as Echo Dots and Kin­dles... and you might be un­wrap­ping one on Christmas morn­ing.

Con­veyor belts car­ry­ing a stream of parcels at the Ama­zon ware­house

Gen­eral man­ager Neil Travis

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