Before Ella LaBarrete took a seasonal job at Amazon.com’s new DuPont Fulfillment Center last September, she worked in a yogurt shop in Puyallup. Now she’s advanced to become one of the 500 or so permanent employees at one of the South Sound’s newest major employers.
She graduated from serving yogurt to picking merchandise from shelves at the million-square-foot, highly automated warehouse in DuPont.
That fulfillment center is among a handful of eighth-generation Amazon distribution centers around the country where the Seattle-based Internet retailer leverages its computer technology expertise to cut costs, optimize its service and speed up deliveries to its customers.
The DuPont operation, built on a 92-acre tract in the planned community, is among a group of new fulfillment centers built in major metropolitan areas to reach Amazon’s customers more quickly. The company now has 50 fulfillment centers around the country, said Amazon spokesperson Ashley Robinson.
It is among three existing Amazon distribution operations in the Puget Sound area. The others are in Bellevue and Sumner. A fourth fulfillment operation is under construction on a tract near Boeing’s Space Center in Kent.
Locating large fulfillment centers in large metropolitan areas cuts shipping costs and allows swift delivery of ordered goods, Robinson said.
The DuPont Fulfillment Center handles physically larger items while the Sumner warehouse, which is half the size of the DuPont operation, ships smaller merchandise such as books, vitamins and DVDs.
The $100 million automated DuPont warehouse received its first merchandise June 4 and began shipping orders to customers a week later, said DuPont general manager Greg Zielinski. The company is holding an invitation-only grand opening for local civic, political and economic development officials Friday, Feb. 13. The company waited until now to hold the opening to allow the center to iron out issues and to get the center past the busy holiday period.
The center is a showcase for Amazon’s robotic technology. Instead of having to roam the vast warehouse searching for items, LaBarrette stays at her station where robots deliver metal shelving units to her. When those four-shelf units arrive carried by wheeled robotic units that fit beneath the lowest shelf and raise the shelving unit off the floor, she picks the order from the shelf. A computer screen shows her the exact merchandise to pull from the unit and on what shelf it is located.
The robots, following wires embedded in the floor of the warehouse, then return the shelf to an open space in the vast two-story storage area.
The picked order then travels on a conveyer belt to where it is boxed and labeled for shipment. Amazon’s computer network weighs the boxed merchandise and compares the weight of the ordered goods to the packed box. An overweight or underweight shipment is automatically diverted off the conveyor system to allow employees or “Amazonians” as the company calls workers, to manually inspect the shipment to ensure that the merchandise matches the order.
The central computer systems then routes the packed boxes to one of two dozen package delivery company trucks backed up the the warehouse. Inside the truck trailers, Amazon workers arrange the boxes to maximized the space inside the trailers.
“It’s like a game of Tetris,” said Robinson. “They want to pack the boxes in a way that minimizes the wasted space.”
A computer algorithm decides which express company will handle the shipment to ensure the order arrives on time and at the least cost.
While pickers such as LaBarrete select merchandise orders from the shelves, other employees such as Denise Kenly stock the shelves with new merchandise. She scans each item as it is placed on the shelves and tells the computer on which shelf it is located. The squat robotic drives move those shelves to and from the warehouse rows.
For larger palettes of items, a two-story robot picks up whole pallets of like merchandise arriving at the warehouse and places them on drives for placement in the warehouse. That robot can lift up to 1,000 pounds of merchandise to the warehouse’s second floor for storage.
Zielinski said the use of the massive robot improves safety at the fulfillment center because it operates without direct human control minimizing the chance of falling merchandise injuries.
In another part of the warehouse, whose floor area is as large as 59 football fields, the Internet retailer stores large quantities of pallet-packed incoming merchandise on two-story shelves for later stocking in the merchandise picking area.
To maximize the storage area, those tall shelves are arranged along narrow aisles. The slim forklift that serves those areas follows a wire embedded in the floor as its shuttles down the row of shelves. That wire guide prevents the forklift from running into the narrowly placed shelves as it delivers its pallets of goods.
During the holiday period, the center workforce more than doubles, said Zielinski. About 50 of those temporary workers, including LaBarrete, were promoted to permanent jobs after the holiday period.
She said she considers the Amazon job a big advancement from the yogurt shop. Amazon said it pays its workers about 30 percent more per hour that the average retailer.
“This job is a huge improvement,” she said. “I enjoy working here.”