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Walmart kicks fulfillment into high gear with next-generation centers

Retail giant announces 4 new facilities with automation, machine learning to quicken fulfillment times

A Walmart associate fills totes with e-commerce orders on a test line for Walmart’s next-generation fulfillment center in Pedricktown, New Jersey. (Photo: Walmart) Photography Copyright ©2022 Steven L. Lubetkin All Rights Reserved Email: [email protected] Phone: 856.751.5491

Walmart announced on Friday that it will build four next-generation fulfillment centers (FCs) that feature an innovative mix of humans, robotics and machine learning. Once opened, the new centers, along with the company’s existing regional distribution centers and over 4,700 stores, will enable same-day shipping of millions of items to 80% of the U.S. population.

Dave Guggina, senior vice president of innovation and automation at Walmart U.S., detailed the new centers, the first of which will open in Joliet, Illinois, this summer, in a blog post. The remaining three centers will open over the next three years.

“While there are countless ways we strive to earn customers’ trust, delivering on our promise of fast shipping and delivery has never been more important to us. Today we use our 31 dedicated e-commerce fulfillment centers and 4,700 stores located within 10 miles of 90% of the U.S. population to fulfill online orders at exceptional speed. But we’re not stopping there,” he wrote.

Walmart (NYSE: WMT) has partnered with tech company Knapp on the centers to develop an automated approach to fulfillment that will cut what has been a 12-step process down to five.

“We’ve been perfecting this system in our fulfillment center in Pedricktown, New Jersey, and have seen how the benefits of this technology are wide-ranging and include: more comfort for associates, double the storage capacity and double the number of customer orders we’re able to fulfill in a day,” Guggina said.

Among the solutions Knapp offers are robotics, storage and retrieval systems, picking systems, work stations, conveying, sorting and handling, and software.

The company noted that once operational, these four centers alone could provide 75% of the U.S. population with next-day or two-day shipping on items, including those shipped through Walmart Fulfillment Services.

“Combined with our traditional FCs, we can reach 95% of the U.S. population with next- or two-day shipping, and by making use of the expansive reach of our stores, we can offer same-day delivery to 80% of the U.S. population,” Guggina added.

The four facilities will employ approximately 4,000 people and result in new types of warehouse jobs — control technicians, quality audit analysts and flow managers among them.

Guggina detailed the five-step process that will happen inside each facility. It includes:

  1. Unload. An associate unloads merchandise arriving on trucks and places cases onto a conveyor belt for routing to receiving.
  2. Receive. At receiving, an associate breaks down the case and places items into an individual tote. The tote is sent into the automated storage system, where a shuttle transports it to one of millions of designated locations. The storage system is designed to account for every square inch, spanning from floor to ceiling in a custom-built structure designed to hold the inventory.  
  3. Pick. When a customer places an online order, the system retrieves the items and shuttles the needed totes to an associate at a picking station. Guggina said this cuts down on time spent walking, which for some associates could be 9 miles a day.
  4. Pack. Simultaneously, a custom box is created to fit the exact measurements of the order and sent to an associate for packing. Guggina estimates an associate can assemble up to four orders at once and send packages to be shipped in less than 30 minutes after the customer clicks to order.   
  5. Ship. The completed order is then automatically taped, labeled and routed to its designated zone, where it’s then shipped to its final destination.   

“Together, this system of fulfillment assets is optimized to get orders to customers fast and efficiently. In this way we show our customers they need to look no further than Walmart to get what they need, when they need it,” Guggina wrote.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected].