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Amazon showcases robots at massive new warehouse

Robots, conveyors and computers plus 3,000 Baltimore workers ship Amazon goods

Shopping on Amazon can feel like magic, with customers summoning mountains of toilet paper, hard-to-find books and the perfect flashlight to their doorsteps in just a few clicks.

But behind the screens, the purchase button triggers a noisy, fast-paced whir of activity.

At Baltimore's new Amazon warehouse, tens of millions of items — diapers, video games, salad spinners, shower curtains, history books — await orders. Roughly 16 miles of roaring conveyor belts carry the goods around the massive white building, from truck to shelf to packing and out again to customers.

On four floors, hundreds of squat orange robots glide forward and back, carrying neon yellow cabinets crammed with products. A computer system advises workers which boxes match the purchases.

Machines stamp bar codes on boxes two at a time.

"It's like a well-choregraphed symphony," said Aaron Toso, a spokesman for Amazon, who gave a tour of the Broening Highway facility Monday to preview Tuesday's grand opening celebration when politicians and other business and community leaders will visit.

The 1 million-square-foot fulfillment center, which the state and city lured to Baltimore two years ago with an incentive package of more than $43 million, started operations March 30, while still under construction. Now tens of thousands of packages ship to customers each day from the building. The firm also opened a smaller sorting center nearby last October.

The bigger building, where Amazon now employs more than 3,000 people, is open 24 hours a day, with staff working in staggered 10-hour, four-day-a-week shifts. At any given moment, several hundred people are on the floor, said general manager Mike Thomas, a 45-year-old from the Midwest who served in the Navy, worked at Ford and has been with Amazon about nine years.

In that time, he said, he's seen the firm's technology change a lot.

Baltimore's "eighth-generation" warehouse is one of 13 where Amazon now uses its robotics system, which allows the company to store items in tightly packed rows of containers, or "pods," stowing inventory by size, rather than product type.

Each item is tracked with scanners and bar codes, as employees send it off to storage or recall it for customers. Thomas wouldn't say how often the company loses track of its inventory, but said the Baltimore warehouse is performing on a par with others. He also declined to say how fast the conveyor belts go or how many packages each employee is expected to pack an hour.

"This has been a really good launch," he said. "We got really good associates and the team here has done a very good job of getting us up to speed very quickly and accurately, so we're pleased."

The robot technology was created by a Massachusetts firm that Amazon acquired in 2012. As Kiva Systems, the firm worked with companies such as Staples and Gap, but Toso said Amazon no longer sells the robots to outside companies.

The advanced technology, which eliminates the time it takes for a human to hunt down products, has been critical to the rollout of the firm's speedy delivery commitments, said Ravi Srinivasan, an assistant professor of operations management at Loyola University Maryland's Sellinger School of Business.

"Unless there is a comparable system on the market which allows the same level of efficiencies, Amazon is going to have the competitive advantage in the near future," he said.

But Srinivasan said the core of the business — getting the right product into the right box to the right customer — is still too tricky to be fully automated.

"That part will still be done by humans for the foreseeable future — at least until somebody comes up with better technology," he said.

Amazon officials said Monday that they're still hiring and don't expect to hit peak volume until the holiday season.

Rudolph Elmore was in the parking lot Monday afternoon after receiving a start date for a $13-an-hour position at the warehouse. The 38-year-old Pikesville resident had been driving school buses part time, but he said he likes the fast pace of warehouse work and applied after seeing the opening online.

"It wasn't hard at all," he said. "It's work enough for a lot of people."

Julia Stevenson, 24, who lives downtown, said she started working for Amazon a year ago and has advanced from an associate on the warehouse floor to a temporary position in human resources.

"There's room for growth," she said.

In addition to its own workers, Amazon contracts with outside firms for some services and uses temp agencies to meet customer demand. Most of the people employed at the center have full-time, permanent positions, Toso said.

State and city politicians on Monday cheered the hiring, which has now outpaced initial projections by about three times. For the loans included in the incentive package to be forgiven, the company must employ at least 1,000 people for 10 years and invest $175 million here.

"Amazon's continued growth in Baltimore is an important part of a larger economic transformation taking place throughout our state, where we are working hard to make Maryland a place where businesses choose to invest and create jobs," Gov. Larry Hogan said in a statement.

The warehouse was built on land once occupied by General Motors, which eliminated more than 1,100 local jobs when it shuttered its assembly plant in 2005. Opened in 1934, the plant employed as many as 7,000 workers who produced some of GM's most popular cars, including the Chevrolet Impala, Monte Carlo and Astro minivan and Pontiac Grand Prix.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement that she is pleased that so many of Amazon's new hires have come from the city, helping to bring down the city's unemployment rate. Precise figures for Baltimore City hires were not available, Toso said.

Christopher McCullough, 22, who started working at the Amazon warehouse through a temp agency this summer, said he's been impressed by the amount of technology the company uses, both to track packages and monitor employee behavior and safety. He makes $12 an hour and is hoping for a slightly more lucrative full-time position.

"I'm glad they opened it up because they created a lot of jobs and the pay is worth it," he said..

nsherman@baltsun.com

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