We visited Herts’ huge Amazon warehouse in lockdown and it blew our minds

Thanks to super intelligent technology ordering deliveries online is incredibly easy.

Websites like Amazon allow us to search an array of items and, with just a few clicks, it’s ordered and delivered to our front door.

But what you may not know is that as soon as you’ve clicked and paid, a huge chain of processes is launched.

Amazon sort their orders at various centres across the UK, including the fulfilment centre in Hemel Hempstead which opened in 2012.

This huge warehouse is filled with millions of items which are packaged up by skilled workers with the help of modern technology.

HertsLive reporter, Alice Cunningham, took a trip down to the Hemel warehouse to see how it all worked and to find out how Covid-19, as well as upcoming Christmas, has effected the day-to-day running of the centre.

My first look of the massive site

The Hemel Hempstead fulfilment centre from above
(Image: Warren Gunn)

I travelled to the Hemel Hempstead Amazon fulfilment centre last Wednesday (November 18) and I was really excited.

I arrived at 10am at the centre and, in normal circumstances, I would have been able to enter reception freely but of course, Covid-19 has changed that.

Before the entrance of the centre, a large tent has been installed which allows workers and visitors to have their temperature checked and get a face mask which must be worn in the warehouse.

This is a new but key part to the functioning of the centre as it means Amazon can effectively and responsibly ensure staff are safe. It’s a really encouraging sight to see, especially for a large and busy warehouse.

Mark Keeney, site manager at Amazon’s Hemel Hempstead fulfilment centre
(Image: Warren Gunn)

Once I was through to reception I was met by the site leader, Mark Keeney, who has worked at Amazon for 10 years and was going to take me on a tour.

To get into the warehouse itself we first walked through the staff cafeteria where plenty of single tables have been placed which allow the staff to rest safely two-metres apart from each other.

As we entered the warehouse we first climbed a set of stairs right up to the top level of the inventory library where I was given my first glimpse of the whole site.

An inventory of millions of items

A picker staff member working at the Hemel Hempstead Amazon fulfilment centre
(Image: Warren Gunn)

Looking at the warehouse from above was mind blowing – it was huge.

I knew the site was big but I didn’t realise just how big as well as how much different stuff was going on.

The Hemel Hempstead fulfilment centre is approximately 450,000 square feet or the size of five football pitches. What’s even more mind blowing though is that there are bigger centres out there including the centre in Tilbury, Essex, the biggest in Europe which spans over one million square feet.

A unique Amazon code

Unbeknown to many people, the Amazon fulfilment centres are given their own unique codes.

The Hemel Hempstead centre is known as LTN2 which may sound very random, but it’s quite the opposite.

Amazon centres are given their code based on the nearest airport to them. So for Hemel Hempstead the nearest airport is Luton – hence LTN.

Another nearby centre in Milton Keynes is LTN but for Tilbury in Essex, its code is LCY2 due to being close to London City airport.

If you’ve ever want to know which centre your item has come from, the code will always be printed on your Amazon parcel and gives you an insight into its journey before it reaches you.

Up on this top level, Mark first showed me the Covid-19 test centre that that has been set up for the staff. Here, staff are able to get themselves a test and have the results back in just two to five working days.

The testing area itself is incredibly Covid-secure and staff can get a free test every two weeks if they wish. It’s a voluntary system but Amazon encourage their workers to take the tests.

Following this Mark began to explain the first processes of how ordering at Amazon works.

As soon as you click ‘buy’ on an item it sets off a huge chain of complex processes and initiates software which helps the staff get the package to you quickly.

Amazon software helps packers determine which size package they need for items
(Image: Warren Gunn)

The first bit of impressive software works out which is the best centre to distribute your package from and from there more software will work out where the items you want are stored in that warehouse.

The staff who find the items in the warehouse are called ‘pickers’ and interestingly, the items are stored completely randomly in the inventory library which spans over four levels.

While walking through this library you would see toothbrushes sat right next to a children’s toy, or a kitchen appliance next to another item that was completely different.

This has actually been done on purpose as it streamlines the pickers process meaning they don’t have to think about where things are. They just have to scan a bit of information on a hand held screen and software will show them where exactly the item is.

Robots working among the living

The trans-ship-out robot
(Image: Warren Gunn)

After this we moved down onto the lower floor again to have a look at the way items are packed and shipped out to customers.

One of the first things that caught my eye was a huge robot working and moving around in one area. Mark explained that this trans-ship-out robot helps sort items due to be distributed to other fulfilment centres.

This happens when, perhaps, another fulfilment centre needs certain items they don’t have but the Hemel centre does have. It will then sort the items by destination location and put the item into a pallet to be sent out.

The conveyor belt which sends packages to the slam machine before being sent out for delivery
(Image: Warren Gunn)

Robots are actually used at many other fulfilment centres across the country and centres like Tilbury have their own self-driving robots which can help bring items to pickers.

After items have been picked they are either deemed as a ‘single pack’ or ‘multi pack’ – basically if you’ve ordered just one item or multiple ones.

Packing stations are where the items are then sent to be packaged up ready to be sent off to the customer.

The staff will receive the items on a conveyor belt, scan them and on a screen it shows them exactly the size of package needed to wrap it in.

This is incredibly important to Amazon because it means that cardboard isn’t being wasted unnecessarily but customers can give feedback on the packing if they believe it’s the wrong size.

Once the package is sealed it is placed back onto a conveyor belt which takes it to another really cool machine called the ‘slam machine’.

The slam machine which uses air pressure to place the
(Image: Warren Gunn)

This machine first scans a bar code on the package and weighs it to make sure everything is right before being shipped.

Then the really cool part happens – the label containing the customers address is printed in just five seconds after the package is scanned and it is then placed on it using air pressure.

This means the machine never actually touches the package and it’s all done in a blink of an eye.

The packages then go to the outbound team who sort them based on the delivery options, where they’re going, and so on.

Control rooms that oversee the whole system

A member of staff at a packing station
(Image: Warren Gunn)

The key parts of the centre are the control rooms which lie right in the middle of the floor.

There are different rooms, which have different purposes but essentially they are rooms filled with lots of screens which show a tonne of different statistics and numbers.

Staff here watch the entire operation of the centre and can see if any part is experiencing any issues.

For example if one area like outbound is experiencing delays, the control room can get staff from another area to go and help out as all staff are trained in the different areas of the centre.

Information on job roles at the Hemel Hempstead fulfilment centre

Amazon has shared some information about the jobs on offer at Hemel Hempstead fulfilment centre and what future employees can expect:

  • There are more than 500 permanent employees, and Amazon will create a further 80 permanent roles by the end of 2020. They are also hiring for around 500 seasonal roles this festive period.
  • Pay at the Hemel Hempstead fulfilment centre starts at £10.80 per hour for all for all full-time, part-time and seasonal workers to help pick, pack and ship customers.
  • All permanent Amazon fulfilment centre employees are offered a comprehensive benefits package, including private medical insurance, life assurance, income protection, subsidised meals and an employee discount, which combined are worth more than £700 annually, as well as a company pension plan.
  • Staff will work for four days over 40 hours but overtime of up to a maximum of 60 hours can be done.
  • Amazon offers employees an innovative programme called Career Choice that provides employees funding for adult education, offering to pre-pay 95% of tuition and associated fees for nationally recognised courses, up to £8,000 over four years. This is open to permanent employees with a year’s continuous employment. More than 3000 people have or are taking part in Career Choice across the country.

This is crucial for the centre and they adjust their workings every 15 minutes as customer demand fluctuates. Mark explained that “the trick is to stay ahead and anticipate what’s going to happen next, not react to it”.

A key thing I noticed when walking around the floor was that Amazon are taking the Covid-19 pandemic incredibly serious.

Screens have been placed around work stations meaning the workers are kept two-metres apart, all staff are wearing face masks, and when walking around the staff make sure to keep their distance.

How did the Amazon staff like their job?

Jermaine Howe

As Christmas approaches the Hemel Hempstead fulfilment centre is getting busy and I was able to speak to three of the centre’s staff and find out what their jobs entail.

Jermaine Howe, 34, who worked previously in property came to Amazon this year.

He said: “In January when Covid hit I decided to move out of London and up to Watford. When I left work I took five months off which I had never done before.

“When I first came I was a temp worker with an agency but now I’m permanent with Amazon, which they asked me to do after about four or five months which is very rare.

‘If anybody has energy and wants to thrive then come to Amazon’

Glynn Judd, 48, came to Amazon due to coronavirus. He said: “I said if I’m going to do warehouse work the only one I really know of is Amazon – they’re the biggest and best. I thought if I could get there it would be a big opportunity and that’s what I did in the middle of May. I did my induction and I’ve not looked back!

“When I first joined I worked in the receive preparations department where everything comes in, you box wrap it, get it ready for the customer and then it goes out.

“Within four months they made a permanent member of staff and then I took some training on the forklift and reach trucks so that was three-weeks-ago and now I work for the dock team.

“I unload all the lorries, load them up, pulling pallets off the top shelves so they’ve invested a lot of time and money in me for training which I’m really grateful for.

“I’ve always said I’m keen to be here, I’ll do anything, I’ll train on anything and I really enjoy my job. Everyday I come in and do something different and I’d struggle if I was doing the same thing everyday.”

Glynn has also noted the major health benefits from working in the warehouse as he manages to hit 30 or 40,000 steps a day. He’s even lost two stone in weight since working here.

“When the government was saying two or three-months-ago that everyone in Britain needs to lose weight in case Covid comes back, I kept shouting ‘get a job at Amazon’ to the radio,” continued Glynn.

“If anybody has energy and wants to thrive then come to Amazon.”

“I started in stow which is in the main pick tower and I’ve actually been doing a lot more indirect stuff whereas a lot of people have a lot of target-based stuff.

“So I do a bit of everything. I get to see how items progress and I enjoy it immensely. When I come to work I’m happy to come to work and I think that’s the main thing.

“The benefits that have come with that are six weeks paternity leave in January when normally it’s two weeks and I can spread that over the year as well, that’s really good – the work life balance is really good.

“I would never have considered this many years ago but it’s more than satisfying to work for a company like this.”

Martyn Jones

Martyn Jones, 57, has worked at the fulfilment centre for six years now so he’s seen the centre go through the coronavirus pandemic.

He was previously a trained painter and decorator of 30 years but after being made redundant at a previous role he came to Amazon. He started as a picker but moved onto stowing which is putting things on the shelves in the library.

Martyn said: “In between that I have had some training in the dock where they train you how to use the machines and I’ve also been trained in first aid.

“I love it here and it gets my back up when I see people saying it’s not a hard place to work. If you come here and you don’t want to work then you’re not going to enjoy it are you?

“At the beginning of this Covid stuff I isolated for two-weeks with full pay because I’ve got two step children with cystic fibrosis, a lung disorder so I had to be careful.

“When I came back the tent at the entrance had been set up and I was really impressed with the measures in place. The warehouse completely changed and almost doubled in size, there’s much more room on the floor now.

“Since lockdown we haven’t really stopped and it’s getting busier with Christmas. I enjoy working at Christmas time knowing I’m helping people out and it’s nice to come in and we’ve had entertainment previously.

“It’s really great.”

HertsLive – Hemel Hempstead