The Herald News, Friday, March 24, 2017 – Page A1

By Kevin P. O’Connor
Email: koconnor@heraldnews.com

Fall River – Of all the wonders within the walls of Amazon – and there are many, general manager Andrew Sweatman said – the most amazing to him are two small machines at the center of the building.

Every package goes past them, whisked on a conveyor belt. The packages go first past a scanner that reads a bar code containing the customer’s name and address. The next machine, 10 feet away, prints and applies an address label.

But that’s not all.

“It works through an algorithm to figure out the quickest and cheapest shipping method,” Sweatman said.

The process takes just under three seconds.

Once that label is applied, the package is on its way from Fall River to you.

Amazon is holding a grand opening Friday of its newest large item fulfillment center, opened in October at 1080 Innovation way. At 1.3 million square feet of floor space, it is also, for the moment, the largest of the 70 fulfillment centers Amazon operates in the United States. One of the largest for Amazon in the world.

Gov. Charlie Baker, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Joseph Kennedy III are among the invited guests for the tour. Sweatman conducted a rehearsal Thursday.

“We have 1,000 people working here right now,” Sweatman said. “But we just continue to grow.

“The 1,000 associates we have right now are full associates with full benefits.”

The facility opened in October after six months recruiting, interviewing and hiring personnel. The turnover, since work began, has been low, even by Amazon standards.

“We are much better than average,” Sweatman said. “It is all about culture.”

Which brings him to the second thing inside Amazon that amazes him: Sonotubes.

“The problem is, how do you store long, skinny items,” he said. “They fall off the pallets.

“We were walking through, trying to solve the problem, and someone said Sonotubes.” So there is space on the floor of the warehouse with the cardboard tubes that are designed to be used as concrete forms for deck footings. They are set upright, held in batches by plastic packing straps, and filled with paddles, curtain rods, mop handles, pole saws. “The workforce here has been amazing,” Sweatman said. “Our associates come in and they have assumed ownership.

“We’re all still learning.”

Amazon arrived in the city, building in the Southcoast Life Science and Technology Park, with the promise of 500 jobs moving large items, anything from the size of a sewing machine to a kayak or a couch. On Thursday, workers were emptying 20 tractor trailers, moving and sorting trash cans, dog food, cases of spring water, tires and bicycles. The building is a quarter of a mile long. It’s clean and quiet enough for conversation. There are traffic lanes for the parade of fork lifts that perpetually moved through the building. Even as the building was under construction plans for its use continued to change. A mezzanine floor over a third of the floor, halfway to the 40-foot ceiling. This is the first large package facility to have a mezzanine.

Managers were handed the keys to the building and told to figure it out.

Sonotubes was one solution. Pallet racks built for stores was another. When no racks could be found to hold the hundreds of bicycles that pass through the building every day, one manager found an empty space and marked it off as a bike lane. “Every square inch of this building is mapped,” Sweatman added. He pointed to a square on the floor that could be read by a scanner. “When you get a list of items, your computer will tell you where to go to get it and map out the most efficient route.”

The building is a testament to automation and human muscle. Packages move on conveyors, passing by at 8 miles per hour, going past scanners and readers until they are nudged by gentle, automatic hands into the back of the truck that will carry the item away. When packages get struck or crooked, workers with long boat hooks set them right. All around the facility, people are picking up packages and putting them on pallets, forklifts, into piles planned by computers.

There is a workshop where computers measure oddly shaped packages and cut and bend cardboard. Workers use their hands and tape guns to turn the cardboard into boxes.

“Our box assemblers are experts at the origami of packaging,” Sweatman said.

The building is at work for 20 hours a day, handling, in this slow time, a million items a week – 7,143 items an hour. The challenge, Sweatman said, is to operate as efficiently as possible while still being open to change and to learn from the people doing the work.

“One of the most exciting things about being in this building is trying to solve problems with the space we have,” he said. “Our associates do a great job of showing us how to do it. “It is working out well.”