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