As a line of robots queued up in front of Jackie Spence, she methodically plucked products from them — a pack of sponges, earbuds, Band-Aids, baby bottles, a preordered $399 Oculus Quest gaming device.
People somewhere, probably not too far away from this Baltimore warehouse, virtually tossed the stuff into their Amazon carts within the past day. Spence is among those filling orders.
But no one has to wonder what she or her 2,500 co-workers, hundreds of robots and 14 miles of conveyor belts look like inside the Broening Highway operation in East Baltimore because Amazon wants people to see for themselves.
On Monday, the e-commerce giant kicked off daily public tours of the 1.2-million-square-foot fulfillment center, one of three Amazon operates in the state and the oldest. It opened in 2015 ahead of others in North East and at Sparrows Point. The warehouse joins 22 others around the country that offer a glimpse into the world of consumption on demand.
“We have millions of products,” said Rachael Lighty, an Amazon spokeswoman. “We wanted to open our doors and let the public see what happens when they click ‘buy’ on Amazon.”
Lighty said that, based on tours at other centers, the company expects a lot of school kids, including those interested in robotics and other engineering-related fields. They also expect families and senior citizen groups who are just curious and even some people who want to see whether this kind of work is for them — positions that require little more than a high school diploma or equivalent and now all start at $15 an hour, a move quickly matched at other area warehouses that compete for labor.
Because the building is the closest to Washington, there also likely will be a steady stream of politicians and their staffs. Anyone older than 6 years, with closed-toed shoes, can do the walk around the building — which is, be warned, the size of 28 football fields. People can sign up at amazonfctours.com.
The “pick, pack and ship” operation was built for the robots, which resemble Roomba automated vacuums, which move tall, thin storage racks that have cubicles filled with products. Machines also track it all, make sure items are accounted for and that they get to the right trucks, headed to commercial shippers or elsewhere.
Amazon said the technology makes the work less arduous and more efficient and safe for employees. The human workers are needed still to unload the various items that Amazon had delivered from sellers, including 41,000 in Maryland, assuming people in this region would want them.
The workers also sort and stuff items into those storage cubicles, at which time things are registered via bar code and made available for purchase online. When they are bought, a robot returns them to a worker who puts them in big yellow containers, which are sent to someone else to put in a box and label.
The machines are always online, with humans to pick up after them when they drop something or have another problem. The people, however, all work 10-hour shifts, with two 30-minute breaks, for four days in a row. Then they have three days off. The work is fast-paced and workers are on their feet for their entire shifts. Together, the employees ship out several hundred thousand packages a day.
That appeals to Spence, who likes the pace and working by herself. After almost three years, she can tell when a storage unit she picks from is well packed or needs some cleanup.
And what does Spence think of the things area consumers buy and often expect in two days with their Prime membership?
“They ordered it, they want it, they got it.”