Business

Amazon’s new fulfillment center in Garner will place emphasis on robots

At Amazon’s massive, under-construction fulfillment center in Garner, the company is preparing the way for a delicate dance between humans and robots.

Inside its 2-million-square-foot facility 7 miles southeast of downtown Raleigh, the blending of flesh and metal could soon have your Amazon packages delivered to you in the Triangle at record speeds — potentially less than half a day in some instances.

“It’s a little bit like poetry,” Robert Packett, Amazon’s regional director of operations for the Southeast, said of watching a fulfillment center operate in 2019.

Instead of humans rushing from shelf to shelf in search of an item, robots will hum along at a brisk pace, nearly silent, weaving in and out between other robots to drop off items.

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An example of an Amazon robot that will move items around one of the company’s fulfillment centers. The robots help cut down the amount of walking that Amazon employees have to do at one of the fulfillment centers. Eric Slomanson Courtesy of Amazon

The roughly 8-foot tall robots can carry hundreds of items, delivering them to associates who stand waiting to pick them up from platforms along the edges of the 700,000-square-foot floors in the fulfillment center.

The robots, which have become a core component of Amazon’s centers in recent years, are more efficient at delivery, Packett said, but also cut down on the amount of walking associates must do.

They will be a mainstay at the Garner facility when it opens sometime next year and becomes home to millions of products that will be shipped worldwide.

Amazon has often been on the receiving end of criticism for the working conditions inside its fulfillment centers, where speed is prioritized to get packages to customers within at most two days for Prime members. Some workers have reported walking 15 to 20 miles per day while on the job in the past.

“We’ve absolutely reduced the amount of walking per day for our associates,” Packett said in an interview after a tour of the facility on Tuesday.

“As you can see, it’s a large space, there will still be walking throughout the day,” he added. “But those days [of workers clocking long walking distances] are no longer common.”

Packett said Amazon is constantly evolving and investing in new technologies, like the package-carrying robots, “not only to have speed for our customers, but also to take care of our associates.”

Economic win for Garner

The Amazon facility was a big economic development win for the town of Garner when it was announced last August.

Not only does it directly replace the old ConAgra Slim Jim plant that exploded in 2009 on the same site, it will be a larger employer than ConAgra ever was. When ConAgra shut down, Garner lost hundreds of jobs and its main employer, said Ken Marshburn, mayor pro tem.

Now Amazon will be its largest employer with an expected 1,500 people delivering thousands of packages per day.

Amazon will also pay its associates at least $15 per hour at the center, a rate that is more than double the state’s minimum wage.

To land the facility, Garner promised to contribute $600,000 to the project. The N.C. Department of Transportation committed $4.5 million to make significant improvements to Jones Sausage Road to accommodate the added traffic, the N&O previously reported.

Amazon is also committed to extending its Career Choice Program to its workers in Garner, which local and state officials touted on Tuesday as another form of economic development for the area.

The program will partner with local colleges and universities to offer training opportunities for associates to gain new skills to either further their career at Amazon or help them find work somewhere else. (Amazon said it hasn’t yet named local partners for the program.)

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Once completed in 2020, the Amazon fulfillment center in Garner, N.C., will employ 1,500 people. Zachery Eanes The News & Observer

The company will pay for 95% of the associates’ tuition and will offer classroom space inside the distribution center.

While not explicitly saying the retraining could help workers whose roles eventually might be taken over by a robot, the company said the program is meant to help employees gain new high-tech skills. Whether that skill is used at Amazon or somewhere else, Packett said, the company doesn’t care.

“I think primarily, we want our associates to do what they love,” Packett said. “I think we have great jobs here with great pay, great benefits ... but we want people to do what they love.

“So, if they want to grow with us, wonderful,” he said. “But if they want to go do something else that they’re passionate about, that’s wonderful, too. And I think that’s the key to the beauty of Career Choice.

“And it’s critical, as we build talent within our workforce in Garner or anywhere in North America, that whether it benefits Amazon or not, it’s only good for our community and that’s part of being a good steward.”

He said many workers have earned certificates or degrees in robotics, information technology or their CDL licenses to drive trucks from the program.

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The outside of the under-construction Amazon fulfillment center in Garner, N.C. The center will span more than 2 million square feet once finished in 2020. Zachery Eanes The News & Observer

Amazon now employs 3,500 full-time associates across North Carolina. By next year, it will have five fulfillment centers in Garner, Charlotte, Kannapolis and Kernersville as well as smaller facilities in Concord, Durham and Raleigh.

“When you look into things like Career Choice and what Amazon is doing to invest in the future of its employees, to upskill them, to arm them with the know-how to succeed in the economy of tomorrow,” Chris Chung, the CEO of Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, said Tuesday, “that is workforce development, and it’s being driven by the employers of our communities.”

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.
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