At the Amazon delivery warehouse in the shadow of Jerry’s Nugget in North Las Vegas, drivers pull their vans into a canopied loading area, each van with its hazard lights flashing.
As they drive around the corner to fit into designated parking spaces, drivers honk their vehicle’s horn to signal they are ready to receive packages.
It was almost 9:30 a.m. on this September morning, which is one of the scheduled daily times when the vans are loaded. Soon, they will be delivering thousands of packages to homes, businesses and Amazon lockers set up all over the Las Vegas Valley.
The process of how the company administers its quick deliveries—from click-to-doorstep—is a complex web of educated estimates, meticulous plans and an omnipresent ability to adapt.
Inside the 145,000-square-foot warehouse—one of three Amazon “last-mile” fulfillment facilities in the Valley—dozens of employees sort items into different totes depending on where they’re headed.
It’s important to note that getting packages to their destination in Las Vegas is certainly unique in comparison to other U.S. cities, officials say.
“One of the challenging things about being in Las Vegas is we do deliver to the Strip,” said Daryl DeSimone, operations manager at this North Las Vegas warehouse. “If a person is staying in Vegas for a few days and they forgot something or need something, they can get it delivered to their hotel on the Strip. We deliver to the mail rooms in the hotels—they will often be the first ones that go out.”
Amazon—the massive Seattle-based logistics and cloud computing company that collected nearly $8 billion in net income during the second quarter of this year—sells hundreds of millions of items to people in more than 180 countries.
It has 13 operations facilities in Nevada, including a massive 855,000-square-foot mega-warehouse near the Las Vegas Motor Speedway that employees about 4,500 people. The facility—LAS7-—takes in 4 million different items per week, officials said. During the holiday season, that number swells by 50%.
Knowing what to have in stock is a constant battle in educated estimates, said building general manager Tom Smotrich. About half of the inventory that comes to this fulfillment center is from Amazon’s many retail partners. The other half comes from other fulfillment centers around the country.
“We use forecasting trends to be able to send products to closer proximity markets,” Smotrich said. “If our inventory levels go down for a certain product, we’ll likely have available inventory at a different warehouse that we could access. We’re very proactive.”
Inside LAS7 sit a dizzying array of stacked containers, close to 10 feet tall, that have individual slots with various items inside. The thousands of containers are arranged in rows by robotic systems—which look like push lawnmowers without the handle—and sit until there’s a need to add to the container or start the process of moving it out on the road.
The robotic systems have a sensor so they don’t crash into each other. Except for trained robot technicians who wear backpacks with sensors so they aren’t struck, nobody else is allowed into the area where the robots move. Employees who sort through the products—adding to the containers or taking from them—are called stowers and pickers.
Every item or container will have a scannable barcode, so the robots know which containers are the best fit, something that is based on the size and weight of a product, along with available space and where the item is headed.
“In a traditional non-Amazon warehouse, products will typically be classified by different products, like electronics or household goods,” Smotrich said. “We actually look to maximize our cubic space. We maximize the space inside each of our bins.”
Once items are sorted and picked, they then need to be packaged. At LAS7, that’s where Marisol LaRue and her packer colleagues come in.
On this afternoon, LaRue received products on a conveyer line. Based on what type of product it was, and based on what the Amazon algorithm told her, she would place the item in one of about a dozen different types of boxes. Any box that weighs over 5 pounds gets a “heavy” sticker—a separate facility handles boxes more than 25 pounds.
There appears to be reasoning behind every step in the process. Take tape for the boxes, which at the facility comes in large rolls and is accompanied by a water tank that provides moisture for the stickiness to activate.
“If you get a package from Amazon, you might notice that it’s a bit tougher to break down,” Smotrich said. “The tape really seals packages up nicely.”
There’s also the option to package items in an envelope, which is accomplished by a machine spitting out the exact length of tape needed for a given box and indicating if it needs bubble wrap.
Once a package is labeled and ready to move again, it goes through what Amazon calls its SLAM—scan, label, apply and manifest—process. At this stop on the conveyer belt, packages are scanned to make sure the correct product at the correct weight is inside. The system then decides what the best shipping route will be for the package before a final label is placed.
The manifest is essentially a final check from an automatic scanner to make sure it’s all right. If anything is amiss, the package is set aside for employees known as “problem solvers,” who wheel carts with computers on them around the warehouse.
From there, all packages head to the loading docks, where they will be placed on trucks that will take them to other fulfillment centers or to a last-mile facility like the one next to Jerry’s Nugget.
Back at the North Las Vegas facility, DeSimone stood near where the vans continued to pull into place for their 9:30 a.m. pickups. Off in the distance, he pointed out a traffic stop light at an important entrance to the grounds for the vans.
The light used to have a five-second timer for a green on a right turn. That wasn’t going to cut it for Amazon’s schedule, so the company successfully lobbied the city of North Las Vegas to extend the light’s time.
As trivial as it might seem, five seconds matters a great deal along the Amazon super highway.
“There’s a lot of information to sift through in order to make timely decisions,” DeSimone said. “You have to decide what the most important information is, then act on it.”
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.