New Amazon fulfillment center uses tech, incentives to move goods rapidly

Global Business

More than a year after it opened, Amazon is giving outsiders a peek inside its fulfillment center in Thornton, Colorado.

CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy reports.

Here, in a huge 800,000 square meter warehouse, items that fit on a conveyor belt are stuffed into boxes and shipped off to customers.

“So anything from books, movies, DVD’s, small electronics, home goods,” said Joe Dudek, the facility’s general manager.

It’s a highly choreographed, 22-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation.

“Amazon is really situated at the intersection of the modern workforce and the future of work, and the fulfillment center as the physical piece of that is so important,” said Jared Polis, Colorado Governor.

“Our facility is really special because it’s a nice mix of technology,” said Dudek. “We have Amazon robotics technology here along with our 1,500 associates who interact with them on a daily basis.”

Hundreds of robotic drive units packed with millions of different products help picking associates, or “pickers”, fill customer orders.

“It simplifies the process a lot more. It’s a lot more efficient,” said Papsy Murillo, an Area Manager at the fulfillment center, about the use of robotics.

At Amazon, the focus is on getting exactly the right goods to people’s doorsteps at lightning speed.

“Amazon is trying not to allow anybody to out-Amazon themselves,” said Jack Buffington, a supply chain expert at the University of Denver Daniels College of Business. “Just continually moving to instant fulfillment, better fulfillment, becoming all things to all people.”

But Buffington cautions: “This two-hour shipping doesn’t come without a price.”

Some employees complain they’re underpaid and that in the march to automation their jobs have become tedious and almost robotic. Workers protested outside various Amazon facilities recently on Amazon Prime Day. Last year, the company raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“Yes, there’s going to be monotonous and difficult jobs that are going to be hard for people and they’re going to be dissatisfied,” said Cliff Young, a marketing expert at the University of Colorado Denver. “It is a company that demands high performance… That’s the nature of a distribution business. That’s what Amazon is in.”

Dudek said Amazon prides itself on its innovative culture.

“It’s great to invest in our associates and their development and their growth,” he said.

The company recently announced a $700 million plan to retrain a third of its U.S. workforce, providing them new skills to use either in existing jobs or at other businesses. It’s currently looking to fill 30,000 open positions.

Amazon is pushing the envelope in other ways too. It just completed Colorado’s largest rooftop solar installation at its Thornton facility, compromising more than 17,000 solar panels, the length of 10 U.S. football fields. It’s part of Amazon’s goal of eventually using 100 percent renewable energy.

“I’m going to be interested to see how successful they are,” Young said. “They’re going to have hiccups.”

He called Amazon a test platform of sorts as it develops new ways for man and machine to work side by side. And as it moves retail into an even more technological future.

“So it’s inevitable,” he said. “We’re in a different world.”