Amazon opens warehouse to show how humans, robots are both necessary to meet demand – Daily News

on May25
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Towering shelves glide over the warehouse floor, quiet monoliths packed with tech gadgets and household goods. Conveyor belts move brown boxes faster than most cars travel during rush hour. And workers move about with expressions that suggest it’s just another day filling orders for thousands of customers across Southern California.

A million-square-foot fulfillment center in northwestern Riverside is home to one of Amazon’s newest, fully-automated distribution centers in the Inland Empire where thousands of computerized machines and 3,000 employees work in concert to move an average 100,000 packages to customers daily.

The company, in a rare move, opened its Eastvale distribution doors to the public as pressure has mounted from competitors, residents weary of more warehouses, and labor leaders who cry for better pay and benefits for thousands of Amazon employees.

Newly boosted pay and benefits policies have helped the nation’s largest online retailer improve its reputation and lock in a workforce, says Burt Flickinger III, a retail analyst with Strategic Resource Group.

“Amazon may have gotten a mixed reception in the public domain, but in this case, they’re doing everything perfectly, and everyone else is just watching,” he says.

Fast and automated

On a recent tour some 14 months after its Eastvale facility opened, the retail behemoth demonstrated how items we order with a click move from shelf to box to delivery truck.

Workers first load the goods — things like books, household items and smartphone cases — onto 10-foot shelves, or “pods” in Amazon lingo. Powered by what looks like giant Roomba vacuum cleaners at their base, the pods glide across the warehouse floor, routinely stopping for cross-traffic like disciplined motorists, to deliver items to order “pickers.” To prevent any human-machine collisions, warehouse workers have built-in safety devices in their vests.

“There are thousands of pods on each floor,” says Michelle Mulcahy, the general manager. “A customer makes an order, it’s scanned, and our associate knows where it is.”

This machine-to-human system is what gets packages to customers in short order, sharply reducing the time spent on the shipping process, Mulcahy says. An associate wraps the purchase as it moves along an assembly line, but a computer tells the worker exactly how large the box ought to be and how much tape to use.

After items are wrapped, they’re sent on those very fast conveyors to trucks and out for delivery. On a typical day, more than 100,000 packages are processed in Eastvale. An Amazon representative said the daily volume topped 1 million in December, the facility’s first holiday season.

Last week’s tour won over Brandon Plott, mayor pro tem of Eastvale.

“I was blown away by it, by the amount of robotics and the pure efficiency of it, ” Plott said. “It was mindblowing.”

It’s estimated that automation in the workplace will displace as many as 75 million jobs by 2030, according to an analysis by McKinsey Global Institute.

Change brings controversy

Amazon’s fast-paced development and workplace issues have put a spotlight on the retailer, which touts some 100 million paying subscribers nationwide and profits of more than $1 billion in six consecutive quarters.

The Eastvale facility is the retailer’s 13th facility in the Inland Empire. Two more are under development.

Massive logistics centers have caught the ire of some local residents who have voiced objections over a proposal to increase logistics operations at San Bernardino International Airport. The new development would include an air cargo hub, and residents say they worry over the congestion, noise and pollution the project would bring.

Amazon also has come under fire in recent months for its workplace conditions, its low pay and long, tedious hours with some workers pushing to unionize.

Randy Korgan, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 1932, a San Bernardino-based unit that represents both private- and public-sector workers, said Amazon’s $15 minimum was a great public relations move, but it eliminated bonuses and other compensation for some longer-term workers.

“It was a trade-off,” Korgan said. “They may have raised it at the lower end, but they took it away from other workers.”

In the Inland Empire, it takes about $26 an hour for a family with one working adult and one child to make ends meet, according to the most commonly used standards. Amazon employees, even with its hourly minimum wage boosted to $15 an hour, fail to meet the region’s living standard.

In addition to the low pay, the workday is repetitive, fast-paced and long. Employees work 10-hour shifts in four days.

A CNET report in early May said seven pregnant women have sued Amazon, claiming they were fired for not being able to keep up the pace of work and took too many bathroom breaks. The incidents went back as far as 2011, with one case in San Bernardino.

Amazon spokeswoman Eileen Hards said it was “absolutely not true that Amazon would fire anyone for being pregnant.” She added that the company accommodates its workers’ medical needs, and offers maternity and parental leave benefits.

Automation efforts

As next-day delivery expands to other retailers including Walmart and Target, Amazon is ramping up automation to speed deliveries and outpace its competition.

The company is reportedly running robot-making contests to promote the development of “picking” and “stowing” machines. On Tuesday, it received government approval for another series of patents for robotic appendages for manipulating products in warehouses.

The Seattle firm’s newly patented “finger assembly” is intended to be attached to a robotic arm, and has a retractable talon, which could be made of steel or plastic, according to the patent document.

“The talon in the extended position is adapted to at least partially support a load from an item lifted by the robotic arm,” the document from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said.

A patent doesn’t mean the technology will be used. The company told the San Jose Mercury News that its robotic movers have helped Amazon expand its business and hire many more workers.

Mulcahy, the Eastvale general manager, says the people working there are more important than the robots. “At the end of the day, a robot is not going to know that that cell phone case is broken,” she said.

She said job applicants undergo one or two weeks of training for robotic logistics operations.

“Amazon has the perception of being a demanding place to work,” she said. “We try to keep it as simple as possible, and we try help to make it so that workers can have fun on the job.”

A growing SoCal presence

The Seattle-based company now has about 20,000 employees in the Inland Empire, making it the region’s largest public-sector employer; another 19,000 employees work across California.

More jobs are ahead, too. A Rialto facility under construction also will be fully automated with yet another new facility is due to open this summer in Beaumont.

Shevaun Brown, a company spokeswoman said she knows of no hubs planned for Los Angeles or Orange counties.

“It’s got to do with space, availability and zoning,” Brown said of the Inland sites.

Amazon’s announcement last fall that it would raise the minimum hourly pay for all its workers to $15 has helped the company attract employees, Mulcahy said.

The company offers medical and dental plans as well as tuition assistance that would pay 95% of the cost of attending post-secondary education facilities for job-related two-year degrees or certificates.

Earlier this month Amazon said it would offer employees as much as $10,000 to quit their jobs and start local delivery service operations. Logistics industry experts have predicted one of Amazon’s goals is its own home delivery operation, competing with Fed Ex, UPS and others.

Mulcahy said that offer has yet to reverberate among Eastvale employees.

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