When Amazon’s mega-warehouse on Boxwood Road near Newport stowed its first product last week – a plush dog toy – it became the largest operational Amazon facility in the country.
Covering roughly 640,000 square feet of ground space and five stories high, the new warehouse totals 3.8 million square feet, making it more than three times the size of Amazon’s Middletown fulfillment center.
“The size is huge,” said Amazon manager Qadir Stevenson.
But it’s not just the size that sets the Boxwood Road facility apart. The fulfillment center features all of Amazon’s latest technology, including robots that move products miles every day and sensors that detect when and where a product is stowed.
Amazon invited media on a tour of the facility Tuesday afternoon. Here’s what we saw.
1. How does it work?
Nothing is manufactured at the Boxwood Road facility.
Amazon sellers send products to the warehouse where they are stored and eventually packaged for delivery to customers. The game is getting products from one point to another as efficiently as possible.
The first station products are sent to once they arrive at the warehouse is “decont,” or decontainer. There, employees put products into yellow totes, which are then sent to different points across the five-story building via a winding series of conveyor belts.
The totes arrive at a stowing station where an employee puts each item into a “robotics pod.” The pod looks like a large shelving unit with about a dozen small compartments on each face.
The products stowed in the robotics pods range anywhere from makeup to over-the-counter medicine and LED stripe lights. It’s at this point the products appear as available on Amazon.com.
At similar looking stations, employees pick items from the pods to fulfill online orders and place them in totes that are sent elsewhere to be packaged and delivered.
The company has a device called an AFE or Amazon fulfillment engine that allows multiple products to be packaged in the same box. Amazon officials did not explain the process, citing proprietary reasons.
The Boxwood Road facility sends packages to sortation centers, which sort the packages for delivery by zip code. Packages are then sent to delivery stations, which handle the “last mile” of the process to the customer’s front door.
At the back of the Boxwood Road property Amazon built a second smaller building that serves as a delivery station.
2. Robots? What do the robots do?
The upper four floors are where the robots live. They look like oversized Roomba vacuum cleaners and transport roughly 40,000 robotics pods across the facility (10,000 fit on a floor).
The robots move along a series of “alleys and roads” to the 128 stations on each floor manned by human employees. The robots are sent back and forth to the employee stations by a computer system.
At the stations, employees are bound by a wall of totes and a computer screen to one side and the robotics pod – that shelving unit of various products – to the other. Each station is dedicated to one purpose. They either store products, pick products from storage for delivery or count products to maintain an accurate inventory.
When they aren’t in use, the robotics pods are returned to their spots in a perfectly formed grid covering thousands of square feet of dimly lit floor space. The robotics pods are surrounded by a chain-link fence.
Amazon touts its robotics system as a win for employee safety. It also makes the operation more efficient. Employees don’t spend their day walking through shelves as though they’re stocking or shopping at a massive store. The would-be shelving units can hold items on all four sides, not just the one facing outward.
3. Other technology and observations
The stowing stations at the facility have a vertical light filter that detects when an employee reaches their hand into the robotics pod where products are stored.
In tandem with the computer system, which directs where products are moving from and to, the system allows stowers to sort products without having to scan each one before moving them. The containers also sense the weight of the product. The light filter was not shown to media.
Most of the interior of the facility was gray with yellow accenting. With no windows, it was all subject to the white glow of the overhead LED light panels. The parts of the warehouse shown to media were quiet.
4. Working at Amazon
Amazon has hired about 500 people for the Boxwood Road facility. It expects to hire about 500 more workers before the end of the year. Officials are also aiming for the facility to be fully operational at that time.
The stowers and pickers whose work was observed by reporters work 10- or 12-hour shifts, said General Manager Will Carney.
5. Amazon has history with Delaware
Amazon opened its first fulfillment center some 24 years ago in Delaware.
Still active today, the fulfillment center off Frenchtown Road near New Castle is smaller than the size of one floor of the new Boxwood Road facility.
Amazon has at least eight facilities planned or opened in the First State, according to media reports. They include plans for a new fulfillment center at the former Blue Diamond Park on Hamburg Road near New Castle and delivery stations in Delaware City and Seaford.
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