Amazon Wants to Innovate Its Way Out of the Pandemic
(Bloomberg) -- Some workers at Amazon.com Inc.’s Troutdale, Oregon, warehouse think of the coronavirus testing pilot in their facility as a sort of lottery. Managers have been reaching out to employees this month and, with their permission, testing them for the disease.
The self-administered tests, offered as a nasal swab or saliva sample, are shipped to labs under contract with Amazon. Eventually, if things go to plan, the samples may fly in Amazon cargo jets to a lab the company is setting up near its main air freight hub in northern Kentucky.
Plenty of companies are trying to keep their businesses afloat in these challenging times. Amazon wants to innovate its way out of the pandemic.
The retailer this month posted dozens of jobs for laboratory workers in the city of Hebron, across the river from Cincinnati, including a laboratory director, technicians and assistants who will test samples collected from some of Amazon’s more than 900,000 employees. In Sunnyvale, California, the headquarters of Amazon’s Lab126 hardware group, the company is seeking microbiologists and researchers, as well as a lawyer to oversee the legal aspects of the laboratory initiative.
The testing project, on which Amazon expects to spend some $300 million in the three months ending in June, is the most visible element of a broad corporate effort that has Amazon executives reassigning teams across the company to deal with elements of the coronavirus. Last month, the company said that it planned to spend about $4 billion on Covid-19 related expenses during the second quarter of the year. Amazon is tight-lipped about its plans, but the array of initiatives launched so far hint at the scale of the company’s ambition to thrive in a world turned upside down.
When the coronavirus began to disrupt Amazon’s operations and sicken its workforce in March, the company mostly threw people at the problem—hiring 175,000 workers to handle a surge in online orders and sub in for employees sheltering at home. At the same time, Amazon began reassigning engineers to search for higher-tech solutions to the logistical and operational challenges of operating during a pandemic.
Some of the projects Amazon began early in the coronavirus are starting to pay off. Last week, the company said it had started manufacturing medical face shields based on designs developed alongside a hobbyist group that have been approved for use by the National Institutes of Health. Robotics engineers are working to adjust the company’s warehouses, originally built for maximum efficiency, for a period when in-person contact and teamwork is dangerous. The company recently deployed a machine in some facilities that helps sort incoming items into bins, saving employees trips that often had them walking past co-workers.
Amazon has backed up the cameras that blanket its warehouses with software to analyze groups of people, an effort to identify locations where employees are congregating in violation of social distancing guidelines. The company recently disclosed an autonomous cart that rolls along blasting surfaces with virus-killing ultraviolet light.
“It’s part of the culture to build it yourself” rather than rely on outside specialists, says Charlie Kindel, an ex-Amazonian who once led teams working on the Alexa voice assistant.
Amazon structures itself around small, decentralized teams. In a time of changing market conditions or crisis, speed and flexibility take precedence over subject-matter expertise, Kindel says. “There’s no compunction about going to a team and saying we need you to do something else,” he says.
Amazon Web Services has joined a coalition of companies making computing resources available to researchers analyzing Covid-19 data or working toward treatments for the disease. The cloud-computing group has also offered support to dozens of other initiatives, some with free credits, others through an extension of existing business relationships. When the state of Rhode Island requested help dealing with a surge in unemployment claims, AWS asked roughly 50 employees across sales and support teams to drop some of their regular work or pitch in extra hours to build and monitor a system to handle the deluge.
The company is the lead funder of a study at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center that seeks to examine infection rates, transmission of the disease and immunity. Dr. Alpana Waghmare, one of the study’s designers at the research group, which is located near Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, says it’s not uncommon for funders to involve themselves in the project. But Amazon is taking a particularly hands-on approach, weighing in on the study’s design and lending support from computer scientists, including some with backgrounds in biology.
“I know they have a genuine interest in understanding the science, as we do, of the evolution of immunity,” Waghmare says.
Some corporate employees, who have been working from home since early March, say they expect the company to roll out testing of white-collar staff before asking them to return to the office. Amazon, which declined to comment on future coronavirus testing plans, has said workers in roles that can be done remotely may work from home through early October.
The importance of the testing initiative became clear when, less than two weeks into the pilot project, an employee at the Troutdale warehouse, located east of Portland, Oregon, was diagnosed with Covid-19. One of this person’s colleagues said he and his coworkers were surprised it took so long for a coronavirus case to pop up in their ranks. In the absence of official communication from Amazon on the virus's spread, many employees have spent the last two months comparing notes on social media as outbreaks popped up at company facilities around the U.S.
Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, says Amazon’s internal testing initiative is a reaction to the halting federal effort and the company’s expectations that it will be dealing with the virus for a long time.
“The problem is we’re looking at a two-year, possibly three-year situation,” says Topol, who has swapped ideas for ways to track the health of employees with an acquaintance involved in Amazon’s healthcare work. “And that’s why it’s wise to invest in a program that enhances the safety of all people.”
Testing itself doesn’t require a lot of expertise, is largely a matter of assembling staff and equipment and applying for certification from federal and state regulators, Topol says. The challenge for Amazon will be selecting from among the fast-changing array of available tests and amassing the clinical expertise to interpret the results.
“Investment in a particular platform could be obsolete as soon as they get it up to speed,” Topol says. “This is a moving target.”
At Amazon’s Troutdale warehouse, one among a few sites where the company is conducting its testing pilot, employees are told they could see results from their tests in as little as three days. The results show up in the smartphone app they use to track their shifts, employees say.
One Troutdale employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says the testing pilot has introduced a new theme to posts about life these days at Amazon: employees sharing the news of negative tests they got at work. “I think that will generate confidence that the coworkers around you are not infected,” he says.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.