American Pickers

Robotics and fulfillment centers are reshaping retail—and cities could be next

Architecture Feature National
Autonomous, collaborative warehouse robots by Locus Robotics are deployed by Quiet Logistics in Devens, Massachusetts. (Sharon Attia/Courtesy Quiet Logistics)
Autonomous, collaborative warehouse robots by Locus Robotics are deployed by Quiet Logistics in Devens, Massachusetts. (Sharon Attia/Courtesy Quiet Logistics)

The city of Leonia refashions itself every day: every morning the people wake between fresh sheets, wash with just-unwrapped cakes of soap, wear brand-new clothing, take from the latest model refrigerator still-unopened tins, listening to the last-minute jingles from the most up-to-date radio. On the sidewalks…the remains of yesterday’s Leonia await the garbage truck. – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

I just learned that my underwear, my mattress, and most of my wardrobe all came from the same place. I didn’t purchase them from a one-stop, big-box retailer, but from a no-stop, small-box room—my bedroom, to be specific (from my bed to be more precise). All I had to do was open up a web page, pick, click, and then wait as my underwear, my mattress, and most of my wardrobe were shipped from a warehouse located in a Massachusetts exurb to arrive at my doorstep in two days or fewer. The maker of this mundane miracle is a company called Quiet Logistics, a third part logistics (3PL) provider that helps online retailers like Mac Weldon, Bonobos, and Tuft & Needle reach customers as quickly as possible. They and companies like them, along with online retailer behemoth Amazon, are using new technologies to redefine retail and transform the architecture of fulfillment. And if they don’t bring about the birth of Skynet and the robot apocalypse first, they might also transform cities and towns across America.

Open up any newspaper (or newspaper app) and you’re likely to read an obituary for the shopping mall. While the reports of its death may be somewhat exaggerated, malls are indeed changing as more and more people buy, well, everything online. Some are being transformed into mixed-use “town center”-style developments; others are filling vacancies with new tenants who lean into recent consumer habits like “showrooming,” an industry term for trying on clothes in one store and then buying them online from another at a lower price. While showrooming may be the bane of many a salesperson, retailers like the aforementioned Bonobos design and build stores as showrooms: comfortable environments where customers find the right-size pants and then leave empty handed; two days later they’re delivered to their home. Any longer than that and customers might not be so quick to leave without those slim-fit chinos. Thanks to the proliferation of fulfillment centers, no one has to wait for anything anymore.

architecture fulfillment centers

A robotic arm manufactured by Minneapolis-based Thiele Technologies works to pack boxes at an Amazon fulfillment center. (Courtesy Amazon)

Fulfillment centers are massive warehouses where the ephemera of our lives is stored until we call upon it with a wave of our hand. The typical fulfillment center is a rectangular box built from precast concrete slabs or tilt-up concrete panels that are poured on-site and lifted into place. They range in size from 300,000 square feet to more than a million, feature hundreds of loading docks, 30-to-40-foot-tall-space-frame ceilings (cubic volume is key), and towers of nearly endless shelves containing rainbow Slinkys, Swiffer Wet Jets, Hello Kitty pencil cases, and literally everything else. “The picking towers are like mini-buildings, only without mechanical systems,” said architect Greg Lynn, who has visited two Amazon facilities and has long been interested in the formal and spatial possibilities presented by new technologies. “Then there are the massive sorting areas and areas where they compress boxes. It’s like a little world. Or a theme park.”



architecture fulfillment centers

Amazon fulfillment center.(Courtesy Amazon)

While large distribution centers aren’t new, the growth of online direct-to-consumer shopping has prompted a building boom of the fulfillment center. For better and worse, no company is better known for these buildings than Amazon, which has built more than one hundred fulfillment centers in America alone, totaling over 77 million square feet in size. Amazon uses a few different types of these centers, each designed to accommodate a specific type of item: small sortable items, large sortable times, large non-sortable, expensive specialty items, and apparel, as well as newer facilities designed for perishable and nonperishable food. Some are conventional centers, where products are picked and packaged by human pickers who can walk up to ten miles a day; some use mechanized conveyance and sorting systems; others are automated with robots handling most of the heavy lifting.

architecture fulfillment centers

Inside an Amazon fulfillment center. (Courtesy Amazon)

While Amazon is the standard-bearer for this new model of retail, it’s not alone. Logistics real estate is booming. Online retailers, 3PLs, and traditional big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Target have all invested heavily in new fulfillment centers to more quickly reach online customers. Target’s online sales tripled from 2013 to 2016, and in that time it nearly doubled the amount of space dedicated to e-commerce with two new fulfillment centers totaling 1.7 million square feet. According to Colliers International, in 2016 e-commerce prompted the construction of 74 million square feet of new warehouse space in the United States, with 93 percent of that space occupied. Already this year is on track to deliver another 55 million square feet, according to research firm Reis Inc., with Dallas, Chicago, Kansas City, Central New Jersey, and San Bernardino, California, as the top markets, although warehouse construction is also booming in Atlanta and Indianapolis.

As with all things real estate, it’s about location. Many of these fulfillment centers are built on former farmlands in centralized locations with easy accessibility to highways and airports. For example, Quiet’s new facility in Hazelwood, Missouri—its first outside Massachusetts—is part of a larger development of fulfillment centers built near St. Louis, where ground shipments can reach anywhere in the United States in two or three days. Amazon initially followed a different tact, building its warehouses in locations selected to take advantage of state tax policies. But those policies have changed as the industry has grown and states have grown savvier. Since 2013, Amazon has focused on building smaller fulfillment centers closer to major urban areas—sometimes even in cities—rather than building larger fulfillment centers in farther-out, less populated areas. The ultimate goal is same-day, and even same-hour, delivery.

Amazon acquired the fulfillment robot manufacturer Kiva Systems in 2012, and began producing the lifting robots in-house. (Courtesy Amazon)

But fulfillment isn’t just about fast delivery; it’s also about fast packaging. And that’s increasingly done by robots. In 2012 Amazon purchased Kiva Systems, now Amazon Robotics, whose rechargeable orange robots might look like a 1970s ottoman but can find anything in any warehouse instantly, and lift up to 3,000 pounds. They’re designed to move proprietary shelving “pods” along a predefined grid to workstations where real-live humans pick, pack, and prepare the items for shipment—often working on multiple orders simultaneously. Among other benefits, the Amazon Robotics system is flexible, scalable, and it’s five to six times more productive than manual picking. Plus, without the need for human-scale aisles, a fully automated warehouse requires half as much space as a traditional warehouse, and can use purchasing data to constantly rearrange itself so that the most frequently bought products are closer to the picking stations. The downside of this robot revolution? The robots can only be used to transport relatively small items that fit in the pods, and the systems requires a large and expensive investment in infrastructure—as well as a very, very flat floor.

Autonomous, collaborative warehouse robots deployed by Quiet Logistics in Devens, Massachusetts. (Sharon Attia/Courtesy Quiet Logistics)

After purchasing Kiva, Amazon took it off the market, forcing competitors who previously used them to find a new solution. This has resulted in a robot arms race as new companies rush to fill the void. One of those companies, Locus Robotics, was founded by Quiet Logistics, which was the first 3PL to use Kiva’s technology. Locus’s robots, which look like the love child of the Jetsons’ Rosie and a hat rack, can be integrated into any standard warehouse, cutting startup costs and accommodating the unpredictable nature of e-commerce. In a Locus-equipped warehouse, human pickers work in specific areas and the robots zip around each other from zone to zone, following the most efficient path to fill an order before taking it to the shipping station. Sensors, cameras, and LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) help the robots map the warehouse and keep them from running into anything or anyone. Locus markets its robot as a more collaborative, worker-friendly solution that plays to the unique skill sets of both: The robot, with its infinite spatial knowledge, limitless stamina, and complete lack of self-doubt, quickly locates and delivers items, while the nearby human, with his or her prehensile hands, picks it up and puts it in the basket. For now, anyway. The robot arms race is becoming a robot hands race as companies work to develop reliable grasping mechanisms to replace human pickers who have annoying habits like going to the bathroom and going home at the end of their shift.

(Sharon Attia/Courtesy Quiet Logistics)

These two automation systems have very different implications for warehouse design, but denser solutions like Amazon’s automated ottoman seem ideally suited to the smaller fulfillment centers encroaching into our cities with carefully calculated products selected to get more people more things in less time. Lynn believes they could do a lot more than cut down shipping time on your Crest Complete Multi-Benefit Toothpaste with Whitening + Scope. “The level of spatial intelligence in these buildings is remarkable,” he said. “It’s clear that every item is being tracked at all times. In terms of localization and knowing where things are, it’s a hyperintelligent space.… [But] how do you take that kind of spatial thinking and apply it to other building types—a library or market or university?”

Lynn has been exploring that question with architecture students at Yale and UCLA, but we may not have to wait long to find out. Amazon is already experimenting with brick-and-mortar bookstores and grocery stores. Could Amazon U really be that far out? Could logistics save the shopping mall? Should more architects and planners consider these interconnected systems and design for robots as well as people? It may only be a matter of time before automation becomes integrated into our daily lives outside the warehouse and the architecture of fulfillment becomes the architecture of the city. Beyond packing and shipping, could fleets of autonomous vehicles transform cities by making parking garages and parking lots obsolete—creating new space for fulfillment centers, perhaps, or putting a new premium on curb space for drop-offs and pick-ups? I haven’t even mentioned drones yet. As technology evolves to meet the demands of our on-demand lifestyle, what else will change? Perhaps all cities will come to resemble Calvino’s fictional Leonia, whose opulence was measured “not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, [and] bought…but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new.” Ultimately, Leonia was threatened by a looming mountain of its own leftovers. But I bet they could get new underwear delivered in less than an hour.

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