A fascinating look at Netflix's now-defunct DVD shipping assembly line

Within hours of the publication of this article, Netflix's DVD division will be finally, truly dead. And so, over at The Verge, Janko Roettgers digs into the (admittedly impressive!) technology behind the company's DVD-packaging assembly line. In the earliest days, the company was all analog, manually hand-stuffing envelopes with DVDs. But eventually, they settled on a machine system that allowed them to turn around, at one point, more than 1.5 million discs per day. From the article:

Bronway custom-designed a massive disc robot called the "automated rental return machine," or ARRM 3660. The ARRM, as Netflix employees simply called it, was an assembly-line-sized machine consisting of 6,500 parts total. At its center were two carousels, housed behind glass doors, that were loaded up with incoming mail and then used pneumatic arms to perform all of the things people had done before: slice open returned envelopes, unpack discs, inspect them, clean them, add them to a facility's inventory system, and get them ready to go out of the door again — basically, every job short of sorting discs and stuffing envelopes for the next customer. 

The robotics company sold 180 of these machines to Netflix in 2010, and they were deployed in stages across all of its hubs. The labor savings alone were enormous. "The hubs were a spectacular number of people," recalled Johnson. "You could replace about five humans opening the discs with one machine."

Once a hub was fully automated, it really only required a handful of people to operate. Warehouse workers would arrive at 2AM each day to flip on the machines and process tens of thousands of DVDs in time to deliver them to the Postal Service later that morning. "It was just one person per machine," Gallion said. "You'd have one person running the stuffer, one person running the sorter, one person running the rental return machine."

Reading about this makes me weirdly nostalgic for the time when I was actually thoughtful about my Netflix queue. When my roommates and I knew that we had to extract the most possible value from my $7 per month, and obsessively curated our Netflix queues to keep a consistent churn of disks coming and going from our apartment. This also meant that we had to watch the DVDs we received, whether we were in the mood for them or not. Sometimes this meant seasons of TV shows; other times, it was just, welp, I guess this is the week where I'm going to binge every single Todd Solondz movie whether I want to or not.

Now I just sit on my ass, endlessly scrolling through a digital menu primarily comprised of churned-out shit I don't care about.

The high tech behind Netflix's old-school DVD service [Janko Roettgers / The Verge]