Manufacturing guy-at-large.

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Photos from NYIO's trip to the Hudson Yards project

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Last week, the New York Infrastructure Observatory was lucky enough to tour the Hudson Yards Redevelopment project - the largest private real estate development project in US History. From my announcement email:

I just want to reiterate that: This is 26+ acres of active rail yard, on which Related Companies and Oxford Properties are building over 12 million square feet of office, residential, and retail space, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox. And the trains underneath (did I mention that all of this development is being built on a huge platform supported by columns?) will keep running throughout construction.

The Hudson Yards project will remake the a big part of the NYC skyline, and includes large changes to the infrastructure in the area. It's a once in a generation project, and it was *really* great to see it in person.

You can see my photos (with captions, if you click them) below. Gabe Ochoa also posted a bunch on his blog, which I recommend checking out too!

Hudson Yards from the new 7 train entrance

Also: You should really read The Power Broker.

Photos from NYIO's trip to the MTA's Coney Island Complex

Added on by Spencer Wright.

The other day, the New York Infrastructure Observatory took a tour of the MTA's Coney Island Yards. I had heard that the Coney Island Yards were *the* thing to see in the MTA's vast array of locations and properties, and was thrilled that they were able to accommodate us.

You can read more about the Coney Island Complex in the tour announcement email, and sign up to learn about upcoming tours here.

Note: Most of the photos below have descriptions, which you can see if you click on them :)

Thanks again to the MTA for hosting us!

The Container Guide

Added on by Spencer Wright.

This week, as Zach and I shipped out The Public Radio's first ~250 Kickstarter rewards, I received the Kickstarter reward that I was waiting most anxiously: The Container Guide.

Craig and Tim are personal friends, and I've been so happy to read about the struggles and achievements they've made on this project over the past year. It's also great to see The Infrastructure Observatory spawning physical output.

The Container Guide is now available for purchase - get yours now!

A brief intro to The New York Infrastructure Observatory

Added on by Spencer Wright.

So. What's up with NYIO?

Almost a year ago, I wrote an email to Tim & Craig telling them I wanted to launch an East Coast version of their Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory. I knew them through friends and from the internet, and was interested in building a community of like-minded people in NYC.

Shortly after, I started a list of locations to visit and began slowly planning trips. Over the past six months, I've organized three tours under the NYIO banner. The first was to Amazon's Delaware Fulfillment center; the second was to Sims Metal Management, and the third (just last week) was to GCT Bayonne. They've been sporadic, but they've caught steam; the last trip filled up within a few hours.

These locations were chosen mostly according to how easy they were to schedule, and I plan on taking a similar approach towards upcoming trips. But I'd also like your input - whether to suggest a site I'm not aware of, or to take over scheduling & logistics for an upcoming trip. If you've got a location you think is worth visiting, please be in touch

Photos from Global Container Terminals Bayonne

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Last Thursday, I visited GCT Bayonne with the New York Infrastructure Observatory. I was leading the trip, and wasn't able to take many photos, but did manage to squeeze a few in:

Geoff Manaugh posted a full report on BLDGBLOG - head over there for more details on the trip. And get in touch if you want to help lead an NYIO tour - I'd love the help!

NYIO Session Two Notes: Sims Metal Management's Sunset Park facility

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Last week I visited Sims Metal Management's Sunset Park facility with the New York Infrastructure Observatory. The whole group posted notes in a public Google Doc, and we shared photos & videos on Dropbox - both of which I'd encourage you to check out. My overview is here.

Location: Sims Metal Management’s Sunset Park facility

472 2nd Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11232


  • Spencer Wright
  • Jason Spinell
  • Daniel Suo
  • Athena Diaconis
  • Jiayi Ying
  • Benny Zhu
  • Mark Breneman

Arrived at: 1400

Tour began at: ~1430

Tour completed at: ~1600

Tour guide was named Eadaoin Quinn

First: When we arrived at Sims, we immediately saw that they were installing a wind turbine in the front of the building. It will eventually generate about 100kW, which is in the neighborhood of 2% of the facility's energy usage.

This facility processes streetside recycling for the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn (I believe Staten Island goes elsewhere). Brooklyn and Queens deliver directly by truck; the Bronx delivers by barge from a transfer station in Hunts Point; Manhattan will soon be delivering by barge from a station on the West Side. Sims does *not* handle commercial or construction waste. Our tour guide said that there are about 250 commercial carriers, each of which has their own sorting facilities and policies. At some point in the future, it's possible that Sims would contract to process their product as well, but it's not clear when.

It costs $65-70 per ton in "tipping fees" to process waste at Sims. For comparison, it costs the city $100+ per ton to put waste in a landfill. 

All told, recycling costs the city money. In the early 2000s, Mayor Bloomberg cancelled most of NYC's streetside recycling, saying that it just wasn't economically feasible. He later reversed his stance, but the cost-benefit analysis (at least in the short term) still isn't great.

Sims processes 600+ tons of product (i.e. recyclables: bottles, cans, paper, etc) per day. They have two daytime shifts, running from 0800 to 2400. They run maintenance daily from 000 to 800, plus another eight hour shift on the weekend.

They try not to shut down for maintenance during the workday, but it does happen. They *hate* plastic bags here (our tour guide had testified in favor of a plastic bag tax the day before we arrived). They're difficult to process, clog up the machines, and have essentially zero resale value. When unplanned maintenance does happen, it seems to usually be the result of plastic bags. Sims processes about 30 tons per day of bags alone.

Another surprise was the way they process glass. Because glass isn't sorted and handled carefully, it essentially lands at their door partially crushed. It's then crushed further (by their disc screens), and then allowed to filter through their process chain, ending up literally at the bottom of their machines. From there it's sent by barge to Sims' Jersey City facility, which expects everything to be roughly 3/8" in any dimension. There, it's scanned and sorted optically between clear and non-clear. Clear glass can be resold and recycled, but it's *really* difficult to sort brown from green - and the two cannot be recycled together. As a result, they're sold as underlayment for public works projects - roadbeds, foundations, etc. Oh - and Sims has some in a planter in the front of their building, too.

The facility's big bragging point, though, is its 16 Titech optical sorting machines. These track the frequency response as items run down conveyors and have infrared light shown at them; different plastics respond differently, and are sorted by pneumatic sprayers as a result. The whole process is totally automated and pretty cool:

Once all the different products are sorted, they're baled into blocks weighing between 800 and 1200 pounds. Sims has relationships with 3-5 customers for each product, and sells it to those customers depending on how their bids (which are updated monthly) compare to the national prices for the commodities they're selling. The contract that Sims has with the city requires a portion of the national price to be paid back to the city each month, so presumably Sims is incentivized to sell the product for more than those national prices.

NYIO Session One Notes: Amazon's Middletown, DE Fulfillment center

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Last week I visited Amazon's Delaware fulfillment center with the New York Infrastructure Observatory. The whole group posted notes in a public Google Doc, which I'd encourage you to check out; my overview is here.

Location: Amazon’s Middletown, Delaware fulfillment center

560 Merrimac Ave, Middletown DE.


  • Spencer Wright
  • Rob Snowden
  • Dan Suo
  • Jason Spinell

Arrived at 0945

Tour began at 1000

Tour completed at ~1115, and was quick almost to the point of being rushed.

Tour guide was named Evan

Notes taken retrospectively by everyone above.

This facility is 1.2 million square feet. The parking lot had somewhere around 2-3000 parking spots, and was mostly full. There was a sign saying “First Day Starts Here” in the front, and a number of what looked like brand new employees doing orientations. This is a “sort” facility, as opposed to a “non-sort” facility. The difference is that all of the items in a sort facility fit in a yellow bin (about 14”x14”x24”).

There are two sides to the facility: Inbound and Outbound. Inbound receives stuff from suppliers and also from other Amazon facilities (“transfer”). They’re doing a lot of transfer right now in prep for “peak season” (i.e. the holidays). Outbound ships orders to customers, and also presumably to other distribution facilities.

Most of the time, employees work 4x10hr days. There are two daily shifts, leaving the facility closed for a few hours a day. There are about 3000 people in normal employment at the facility. During peak season, they ramp up to 6x10hr days. I believe they also shift the schedules a bit, such that the facility is humming 24x7. They also increase their staff, up to about 6000 people.

At inbound, pallets come in and the bill of lading is checked. Then the boxes are loaded onto a conveyor. One team of associates *just* open the boxes. Then another team picks a box out, empties the items out, and checks quantities. Then (I think) they add an ASIN if the item doesn’t have its own UPC.

They use random storage at the facility. There are cubbies everywhere, and each has a bar code. Inside each cubby is up to 6 unique SKUs. If a SKU is in one cubby, it CANNOT be in any adjacent cubby.

There are about 300 Pickers at this facility. They are managed by two managers. Pickers find the cubby they’re assigned to look for, scan its barcode, and then find the item within that cubby that they’re supposed to pick. They scan the item’s barcode, and drop the item into their bin. If a picker finds a broken item, they put it in a red bin at the end of the aisle, where QC can find and fix/dispose of it. If a picker finds an item that’s not in its proper cubby (e.g. on the ground), they put it in a blue “amnesty” bin, where QC can pick it up and return it to its proper location.

Once they get all the items on their current list (which does *not* correspond to a customer order), they put the bin on a conveyor, and it goes up to sort.

At sort, an associate has a bin (from the pickers) and an 8020 rack on casters that has a few dozen cubbies on it. They pick an item at random out of the bin, scan it, and then a monitor tells them which cubby to put it in. Here, the cubbies *do* correspond to customer orders. Once the rack’s cubbies are all full, the rack gets wheeled over to the pack stations. Each cubby has a packing list in it.

There are about 100 Packers at this facility. They have one manager, and two or three assistant manager types. The packers take a packing list and its items out of the rack. They scan the packing list and it tells them which box to use. Different packers have boxes of different sizes; so one packer might have small/medium boxes, and another might have larger boxes.

They pack all the items into the box and fold it up, putting the packing list inside. They have a machine that wets water-activated shipping tape and cuts it to length automatically. All they have to do is press a green button and the machine already knows what kind of box they’re using and spits out a piece of tape that’s just the right length.

Each packer has a set of Andon lights above their station, which indicate their ability to perform their work. During normal operation, the Andon light is green. If the associate is running low on supplies, they turn it to blue; if they have a serious blockage or shortage problem, they turn it red. Andons are constantly monitored by support staff, who will come to assist if a packing associate is unable to do their job.

They seal the box up. Then they take a barcode sticker off of a reel, scan it, and put it on the box. At this point that barcode is assigned uniquely to the customer’s order. The box goes on a conveyor. It is automatically scanned, and has a shipping label printed and slapped onto it by a machine (this was *cool*). A spot on the conveyor weighs the package, and if the weight is off then it goes into QC. 

The packages are sorted roughly by size and go onto a long oval conveyor. At one point on the conveyor, a 360* scanner checks the barcode and figures out which truck (by shipping zone) the package needs to go on. Then, as it’s going around the conveyor, little pushers kick the package off the conveyor at the right chute, and it’s sent down to the truck to be loaded. 

Humans load the trucks, creating big walls layer by layer. They try not to stack the same box size very high, because it’ll become unstable unless the stack is interlocked at a lot of points.

Other notes:

  • The whole place was rather spartan. 
  • Our tour guide used an iPhone, but claimed he’d use a Fire if he wasn’t locked into his carrier.
  • Our tour guide is normally an Ops guy; tours are *not* his full time job.
  • Their “___ Days since last workplace injury” sign was *not* filled out.
  • They had Grainger vending machines with “free” PPE supplies inside - but they track employees use of those supplies.
  • They were very excited about FBA (fulfillment by Amazon) and their MOS (make on site i.e. print books on site) programs. FBA packages get plain brown packing tape (as opposed to the Amazon branded tape), but otherwise the whole process seemed to be very similar to Amazon owned items.
  • Our tour guide was very enthusiastic about a few TPS things. He mentioned Kaizen (literally “good change”), which to Amazon is a program where people from throughout the organization get together to propose and implement significant improvements in their processes. The Andon lights in the packaging department are also a derivative of a Toyota production feature.
  • Amazon has a number of “etiquette” policies, which refer to the “nice” way of doing things. For example, heavy items shouldn’t be stored on shelves above head height). It was unclear whether these guidelines were substantially different from rules, but with friendly names.
  • The whole place was highly automated. The box & tape length selection systems were really interesting, and have the effect of making the packers into just highly adaptable robots.
  • When the tour was over, Evan (with some enthusiasm) gave us all Amazon branded cigarette lighter USB chargers. 

NYIO -> Amazon

Added on by Spencer Wright.

The New York Infrastructure Observatory's inaugural journey is coming up! We'll be heading to the nearest Amazon distribution facility, in Middletown, Delaware, and will be touring one of the most impressive logistical operations in existence. If you're interested, throw your hat in the ring here - spots are *extremely* limited for this one, but we'll do everything we can to get you in!