The Secret Inner Workings of Netflix

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The economy is stagnant and many businesses are struggling to stay afloat, yet Netflix consistently shows a profit. Well, what better way to temporarily take your mind off of job hunting and bill paying than to watch a movie? And if that movie is delivered right to your mailbox so that you don't even have to get dressed to retrieve it, that's just icing on the cake. But where exactly do those Netflix DVDs come from? How do they get to your home so quickly? These questions and more are answered below, but keep it quiet, please; the Netflix folks are very big on secrecy.

Netflix has 58 warehouses nationwide, and each one is non-descript and unremarkable. There is no outside signage or even a corporate color scheme to give the slightest hint to the rest of the industrial park what lurks inside those concrete walls.

The company has good reason to keep its presence on the down low: each warehouse contains not only millions of DVDs, but also some very sophisticated and expensive sorting and processing equipment. Aside for the theft potential, Netflix is also trying to avoid having customers showing up on their doorstep trying to return or rent discs.

netfUnmarked Netflix trucks are dispatched to the local main post office at 3:00AM six days per week to pick up cartons of returned DVDs. (Thus, getting your disc in the post early in the day doesn't mean you'll get your next movie any faster; there is only one pick-up per day.) The incoming cartons are handed off to employees who open each box and then spend their entire eight-hour shift taking a disc out of the box, removing it from the envelope, making sure that the title matches the sleeve, wiping it down in one motion and inspecting it for scratches or cracks, and then placing it in one of two bins (one for good discs, one for rejects). Seasoned employees perform this sequence about 650 times per hour, which makes them susceptible to repetitive stress injuries. As a precaution, there is a mandatory stretching/callisthenics break every 65 minutes. [Photo credit: Matthew J. Lee]

Discs that pass inspection are loaded into a machine that scans them (at the rate of 30,000 bar codes per hour) and generates an email confirmation to the sender that the disc has been received. The discs are then scanned a second time, during which process the system checks to see if the DVD has been requested and, if it has, it is automatically sorted by ZIP code. A separate machine inserts and seals the discs into envelopes and a laser printer zaps the address onto the front of the mailer. The machine stuffs and seals about 3,200 envelopes each hour, which are then packed into cartons. Come 5:00PM, the cartons are loaded into trucks and hauled back to the post office, completing that final curve in the Netflix circle.

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August 6, 2009 - 8:30am
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