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Amazon shows off robotics in newly opened Sparrows Point warehouse

The Sparrows Point Amazon fulfillment center opened in September 2018 and employs over 2,000 full-time workers to pick, pack and ship products. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)

Employees of Amazon’s newest Baltimore-area warehouse work alongside a fleet of robots to store, select, pack and ship hundreds of thousands of orders each day to send to consumers’ doorsteps.

On Tuesday, the e-commerce giant marked the official opening of the state-of-the-art fulfillment center on the site of the former Sparrows Point steel mill in eastern Baltimore County, showing off a facility the size of 13 football fields to state and county officials. The facility, a centerpiece of the Tradepoint Atlantic e-commerce and manufacturing re-development, employs 2,000 people.

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The center is one of dozens Amazon operates around the country that use robots for efficiency, said Tim Foley, the center’s general manager. A robotic system is used to move inventory around the building so items can be brought to workers at their stations.

“This you can think of as the starting point for the fulfillment network, where all the inventory is housed and stored, and then once you order it, we pick, pack and ship it, and that may then go to another facility where it is sorted,” based on geographic area, Foley said. “The addition of this center … broadens our selection and it puts more inventory closer to a high area of customer demand.”

In one area, yellow bins zipped across miles of overhead conveyor belts, while tall robotic pods that resemble moving shelving units and carry merchandise glided between worker stations. Employees picked items from bins, scanned them and stored them in slots on the robotic pods. The pod then moved along to another worker station.

The 855,000-square-foot warehouse predominantly serves Maryland, the MidAtlantic states and some of the Northeast. It joined a FedEx distribution center, an auto importing operation and an Under Armour warehouse for online orders at Tradepoint, the site where the former Bethlehem Steel mill closed in 2012.

Amazon now employs more than 5,500 people in the Baltimore region, operating fulfillment centers on Broening Highway in Baltimore and in North East as well as a sorting center and a Prime Now hub.

Amazon’s expansion in the state since 2015 is “bringing meaningful, transformative investment and thousands of good paying jobs to Maryland citizens,” said Gov. Larry Hogan, who joined Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and other state and county officials on Tuesday’s tour. “I can’t wait to see what this strong partnership with Amazon will lead to next.”

After touring the center, Hogan said he has continued talking with Amazon officials after the company backed out of plans to locate part of its East Coast second headquarters in New York City. Amazon had picked Queens in New York and Northern Virginia for its “HQ2” campus that was expected to bring 50,000 jobs.

Sites proposed in Maryland had included one in Montgomery County that landed on Amazon’s list of finalist locations as well as Port Covington in South Baltimore.

Though Amazon is no longer actively searching for another site, “we lay down a marker to let them know, ‘hey, we’re still here, and we’re still interested,” Hogan said Tuesday.

“We’re not giving up,” he said. “We like the partnership we have. We like the facilities. We like the fact that they continue to expand.”

Olszewski applauded the company for “investing in your employees.”

The company said it offers starting pay of $15 an hour and benefits such as Career Choice, which pre-pays 95 percent of tuition for employees to go back to school in high demand fields, regardless of whether they relate to Amazon jobs.

“We remember what this site once was, in a very personal way, so to see the incredible transformation at the site is exciting and it’s encouraging about where the future is,” the county executive said.

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