Skeptics with a K: Episode #255

European homeopathy, browsing YouTube, flat earth posters, and oversized boxes. Plus auto-flushing toilets, robot shelves, and wearing a suit to the park. Rehearsing at 4am, it’s Skeptics with a K.

  1. #1 by Simon Whitten on July 25, 2019 - 21:25

    I worked at Amazon over Christmas as a packer and can add to Mike’s story.

    The computer recommends a standardised box size for each item, you won’t get recommended different box sizes for the same item depending on which van it’s going in.

    Emphasis there on the word “recommends.” We were briefed at the start of each shift on items that should be packed in boxes different from the type recommended by the computer.

    Additionally some box types (including the E36, E6, E7 and any C types – check it out next time you order something) are collapsible and so have variable volume, so the idea of a perfectly optimised van-pack just couldn’t work.

    Sometimes the system recommended absurdly large box sizes for the item in question. I have been told by managers at briefings that we should use common sense and repackage these in smaller box sizes. I have also been told by managers at briefings that we should never use a smaller box than recommend unless explicitly told otherwise. The conflicting instructions reach a point where the packing strategy had more to do with second guessing what the particular management team on duty wanted more than applying any logical system.

    Items packed in a box of any type other than the recommended type will “kick-out” for inspection after being scanned down-conveyor, so a packer may use the absurdly large recommendation in the hope of avoiding additional scrutiny (keep in mind this will happen hundreds of times a day).

    Amazingly for a company like Amazon, some “rare” box types were often out of stock, requiring the item to be repacked in a different box size. These rarer box types were often used for items that are wide but flat, and so they end up having to be repackaged in boxes that have an equally wide base but which are much taller.

    But Mike is correct that replenishing boxes of a particular type can involve walking to the end of the isle, effectively dooming you to a low performance quotient.

    Having worked at Amazon at the time the Doctor Who episode “Kerblam!” aired I can confirm that the real thing is significantly less relaxed than the parody (I suspect it also has a higher employee death rate, but cannot confirm from first hand experience.)

  2. #2 by Rob on July 30, 2019 - 10:02

    I don’t work for Amazon, but we do have a warehouse system. One common mistake that causes oversized packaging is just simply entering the wrong dimensions for a single item. Often items come in boxes from the supplier containing (for example) 12 pieces. Someone then by mistake enters the dimensions of that box into the product dimensions field. Suddenly a single small component will automatically be shipped on a pallet.

    The worst issue we had was after an update of a computer system. The language settings were suddenly changed to English instead of Dutch. We use decimal commas, they were suddenly changed into points. The rest of the system couldn’t deal with that. This was mostly relevant for the product weight, as most other values were entered in integers. Suddenly some products were several orders of magnitude heavier. Most of the process is automated, so we found out after a transport company called back, they didn’t have the equipment to ship a machine weighing several hundreds of tonnes.

(will not be published)