Amazon opens the doors to new Romulus robotics fulfillment center

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Romulus — Three million packages during a regular week ship from Inc.'s robotics fulfillment center here.

The Romulus facility is one of 25 Amazon fulfillment centers that employs hundreds of the flat orange self-driving palettes to help customers obtain their orders on time, said Shawn Westlund, general manager of the Romulus center. Despite the automation, the facility still supports 1,500 jobs and is hiring.

Thousands of packages move on conveyor belts through the Amazon fulfillment center in Romulus.

"The robots make our operations safer and more efficient for our associates," he said ahead of the fulfillment center's first public opening Friday to media and politicians since the facility began operations in July. "They bring the product right to our associates, so they can pick or stow."

The more than 855,000-square-foot, four-story complex can store 35 million units of items such as McCafe coffee pods, purple bed sheets and books, though it runs at approximately 78% capacity during non-peak times of the year. July's Prime Day, a day of discounts on Amazon's website, however, is coming up, Westlund adds.

The fulfillment center also packages and ships orders to be taken to customers worldwide, though particularly in the Northeast, central parts of the country and military addresses overseas.

Amazon balances the requests between its fulfillment centers, and though facilities on the East and West coasts may be a tad busier, "we hold our own," said Westlund, a 10-year Amazon veteran who has helped launch other Amazon centers in Metro Detroit.

After a customer hits that "Buy Now" button, Amazon's system sends the request to employees known as "pickers." Robots move tall yellow shelves with 9-inch and 18-inch cubbies that "stowers" have stuffed with products sent here from Amazon's inbound cross-dock facilities and vendors.

The requested item appears on a computer screen in front of a picker, and the screen indicates from which cubby the worker is pulling the product. A recently added component also lights up that cubby.

"You have the visual and the light to help with the efficiency of the process," Westlund said. "You almost don't have to think about it."

The picker puts the item into a yellow tote box, which starts its journey along the 10 miles of conveyor belts in the facility. All of the steel in this building could create two Eiffel Towers.

All employees go through a four-week safety and training process. Wages start at $15 per hour and include full benefits.

"Our associates bring it all together for our customers," Westlund said. "They are the heartbeat of what we do."

If the order contains one small item, its tote heads to an associate like Daisy Neff, who quickly scans and slides the product into a large golden envelope and slaps on a printed shipping label.

"I have the record" of putting together the small packages, Neff said with a smile. "520 in an hour."

Items that don't fit in an envelope or are being shipped with another good are transferred into brown trays that are sorted by the order, and workers place the items together in a gray cubby. Employees on the other side package the products together.

The "SLAM" station is next, where packages are weighed to ensure they have the proper contents. A machine then stamps the box with a shipping label.

Fulfillment center associate Mike Lee works at a packing station for small items at the Amazon fulfillment center in Romulus.

All items, now packaged and labeled, travel along the conveyer belt to be tracked and sent down chutes to the correct truck for shipment to an Amazon delivery center that will take the package directly to a customer's house, to an Amazon sorting center that prepares the packages for postal delivery or to the United Parcel Service or FedEx Corp.

The state of Michigan provided a $5 million grant to the e-commerce giant for the fulfillment center.

Amazon has fulfillment centers in Brownstown, in Livonia as well as in Shelby Township, which began operations in April. Romulus' facility, however, is the only one that employs robots. The public opening also follows one at Amazon's second facility in Romulus —  a delivery station — last month.

"We're excited to be here," Westlund said, "to be a part of this community and offer stable jobs."