Amazon’s Thornton fulfillment warehouse is a study in efficiency.
The 2.5 million-square-foot warehouse is filled with thousands of robots, and every one of the more than 20 million items there is scanned every step from arrival to departure to make sure it gets to the customer that bought it in the fastest and least expensive way possible.
As Amazon gears up to build a huge new delivery facility in Colorado Springs, the high-tech Thornton center offers a glimpse of what's to come: a high-tech, robotic distribution system built to get merchandise to customers sometimes within an hour and often the same day. The Thornton center sends merchandise to be delivered to customers through both sorting centers, including one in Aurora, and delivery stations, including a temporary one at the Colorado Springs Airport and three others in the Denver area. Amazon opened the temporary delivery facility late last year and is building a permanent one in the airport's Peak Innovation business park.
Amazon is building warehouses, delivery stations and other facilities in Colorado Springs, the Denver area and across the nation to keep up with surging demand by consumers buying everything from dog food to televisions online.
The Springs delivery station is under construction on an 18-acre site in Peak Innovation Park. The Colorado Springs city Council agreed in November to sell that land and a second 70-acre parcel to a Fortune 500 company, which has been identified as Amazon, for a warehouse-distribution facility that would generate a "significant" number of jobs, according to information present to the council. No plans have been submitted for the 70-acre site.
The Seattle-based online sales giant has spent more than $1.5 billion over the past three years in Colorado, pumping more than $1 billion a year into the state's economy, to build the Thornton warehouse and three other fulfillment and sorting centers, three other delivery stations in the Denver area, Prime Now, Tech and Amazon Air hubs as well as several storefront locations. That's part of $160 billion Amazon has spent nationwide during the past seven years on corporate offices, research and development centers, fulfillment centers and payroll offices.
Much of what Amazon customers in Colorado and nearby areas receive comes from its fulfillment centers, which stock millions of items that go through a six-step process. First merchandise is received from a vendor, then stowed in bins that are stacked in tall carts moved around by thousands of robots. The items are then picked out of the bins by workers, packed in a boxes or sleeves and loaded onto trucks to be sent to a nearby sorting center or delivery station, where vans will pick up the orders and deliver them to customers.
The Thornton warehouse was built to make same-day deliveries in the Denver area and much of Colorado, while Whole Foods stores (which Amazon owns) and smaller delivery stations handle one- and two-hour deliveries to Amazon Prime customers in the immediate area around those stations and stores. The station under construction in Colorado Springs will serve the Springs area and will employ "hundreds" of people ranging from full-time employees to independent contractors, according to an Amazon spokeswoman.
The Thornton center opened in August adjacent to Interstate 25 and 144th Avenue, one exit south of where the E-470 toll road and I-25 meet on Denver's north end. The four-story building stocks smaller items, mostly for delivery in and around Denver, but can ship items as far as needed if it is the only facility with that item, said Zeshan Kazmi, an Amazon spokesman. Amazon operates 150 such centers nationwide, including an Aurora center that handles large items such as furniture.
Amazon hired employees for the Thornton center mostly from the northern Denver area, but some commute from as far as Weld County and many come from the warehouse and retail industries, said Clint Autry, the center's general manager. Many are highly educated and applied for jobs at the center as a way "to get a foot in the door with Amazon," he said. The company tries to promote from within and offers financial assistance of up to 95 percent of the cost of specialized training for difficult-to-fill jobs like truck drivers or information technology workers.
For example, Maria Lopez joined Amazon in 2010 as an hourly employee in Phoenix and later moved to the Denver area and was later promoted to Autry's assistant. Connie McAllister came from Kentucky and was hired as an entry-level trainer when the Thornton center opened and was quickly promoted to the highest-level trainer for the company's first-day training process for new hires. The company trains most employees in more than one job.
Amazon has hired employees for the center from many non-traditional sources — Kenneth Cruz spent eight years in the Marine Corps, much of it overseas, before moving to Denver for a "fresh start" and getting a job at the Thornton center. Jennifer Cowden had been out of the work force for 23 years as a stay-at-home mom before she moved from Chicago to Denver and was hired by Amazon in December. Joshua Garcia was an assistant manager in a Denver area pawn shop before he was hired.
The jobs at the center start at $15 an hour — Amazon's company-wide minimum wage — and many are full-time positions with benefits, although the company also hires hundreds of seasonal workers for the busy holiday sales season. Autry said employees get raises and promotions every few months, and he expects the center to continue growing by hiring additional workers.
Amazon employees unpack arriving merchandise and put individual items into random bins. Autry said he wants items "as scattered as possible because we want the item to be as close to a picker (employee that takes merchandise from a bin to fill a customer order) to allow the fastest possible delivery to the customer," which is calculated by an algorithm. Since every item is scanned, the center's computer system knows where every item is at every step of the delivery process.
Once the merchandise is in bins on a cart, fleets of robots move the carTs to specific places on the warehouse floors marked with QR codes that the robot reads. Autry said the robots aren't taking away jobs from workers — "without robots, we couldn't meet demand and that is what keeps customers coming back" and creating additional jobs.
After a customer orders an item, a robot brings the cart that includes a bin with the right item to a picker, who inspects it to make sure it is what the customer ordered and isn't broken. The picker puts it into a tote that is transported by a 10-mile network of conveyors to where it will be packed in a box or sleeve. The center's computer network tells the packing employee what box or sleeve to use and dispenses the correct amount of tape to seal the container.
The packages then travel along the conveyor system to semi-trucks — where workers can pack more than 100 trucks at a time. Much of the technology Amazon uses to track and move merchandise was designed internally to improve efficiency in each step, but the company still relies on humans for quality control and to handle items that are rejected by the scanning system, Autry said.