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Amazon’s future on display with Boxwood opening

Katie Tabeling

A worker at the Amazon Boxwood plant audits the inventory of products stored on the second floor of the facility. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

NEWPORT — At long last, Amazon’s crown jewel Boxwood facility with cutting-edge robotics to store inventory and streamline the shipping process has opened for business.

The e-commerce juggernaut began receiving thousands of products for inventory starting on Sept. 12, sorting each item with the help of 500 workers and 40,000 robots in the five-story building. Amazon is on target to hire at least 500 more employees by the end of the year, and scores more with the last-mile delivery center at the rear of the same campus.

Will Carney, general manager of Amazon’s Boxwood plant, poses outside of the massive Newport facility on Sept. 21. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

“One thing that’s really incredible about the Amazon robotics system is the resources it saves. Our associates can stay in one location instead of walking throughout the building,” Boxwood plant general manager Will Carney said. “I know this team we have now is really committed to make sure that every person that comes within our doors feels engaged and wants to come back each and every day and ultimately have a safe, fun and enjoyable experience here.”

For the past two years, Amazon and  Dermody Properties have been laying the foundation for a building that includes 15,000 tons of steel and 3.7 million square feet in floorspace. The next-generation facility is one of at least 26 sites that use small robots to store and guide products to associates to be picked, packed and shipped.

When products arrive at the Amazon Boxwood facility in cardboard boxes, associates take the product out of the box and place it on a yellow tote bin, which is then placed on the approximately 10 miles of conveyor belts that zig-zag throughout the building in a Willy Wonka-esque maze.

Those conveyor belts take the totes to the top floors, where more associates will take them out and load them on shelves — each containing a storage pod —stacked on small, flat robots. Like a Roomba on steroids, those robots will carry the storage bins across the warehouse floor to be stored or come to a worker to pick specific inventory needed to complete an order. Each floor has about 10,000 robots. Barcodes taped on the floor help the robots navigate without bumping into another robot.

The new Amazon Boxwood facility features four floors of robot-assisted storage that helps the company store and retrieve more items than ever before. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

“This is probably the coolest part of the operation here,” said Amazon Boxwood Assistant General Manager Jairaj Vora as he watched the shelves smoothly glide across the warehouse floor. “It’s also extremely safe, because the pods come to our associates. Those barcodes work like avenues and streets in New York City, it keeps traffic moving.”

It may be two hours or more from the time a customer places an order on Amazon.com to when the robot is triggered, depending on other items in the digital shopping cart and the size of the items. No floor or pods are assigned specific products, because it works best to randomize storage due to unpredictable customer orders.

At the edges of the storage floors are stations where workers pack the boxes. Another machine can detect a hand during the process, as well as the weight of the box. There are 128 stations to be manned by associates in all, with hopes to bring the facility to near continuous 24/7 operations.

Workers remain at stations while the Kiva robots deliver the storage units to them for picking, storage or inventory auditing. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

“If you think back to the first fulfillment center, stowers and pickers walked 20 miles a day and they had to scan for inventory. Machine-learning eliminates the scanning and it makes it safe,” Vora said.

Amazon’s next-gen Boxwood plant which looms over Route 141 breathes life into a site that has long symbolized Delaware’s past as an automotive plant state. The former General Motors plant closed in 2009 after six decades of producing Chevrolets and sat empty until it was razed 10 years later.

Amazon and Dermody have invested roughly $250 million in constructing the site, and Delaware committed $4.5 million in taxpayer-backed incentives to seal the deal.

The e-commerce giant also made a point to emphasize workplace safety measures and culture at the facility known internally as MTN1. Amazon touted $3 billion in workplace safety investment, including $100 million this year in projects like redesigning and retrofitting workstations, re-engineering cross-dock operations and powered-industrial-truck barriers, and implementing new safety control systems.

The Amazon Boxwood plant has break rooms on each floor, as well as an infirmary on the first floor, manned by EMT-certified staff. COVID-19 testing may also be provided, according to Vora.

Workers collect incoming products for the Amazon Boxwood facility on Sept. 21. The first item unpacked at the plant was a sampler pack of hot cocoa K-cups. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Entry-level associates are currently hired at a base of $16 an hour with full medical and dental benefits, and Amazon is offering a $3,000 sign-up bonus right now for those who stay at least six months. The company recently announced it would invest $1.2 billion in education and workforce development programs for its employees over the next three years. That includes college tuition, GED and high school degrees, English as a second language certifications and internal training — like servicing the robots themselves. Officials touted that many of its robotics technicians have worked their way into such roles from entry-level positions.

While Amazon looms large in Delaware, contributing up to $3 billion to the state’s gross domestic product and employing more than 5,000 in direct jobs, it still pales in comparison with its nationwide impact. The COVID-19 pandemic fueled the need for shipping and delivery services, bringing Amazon to a meteoric rise. 

Earlier this month, the company announced it would hire 165,000 more people, including in 40,000 corporate and technology jobs. Although the Amazon Boxwood facility may be Delaware’s largest building, it will contribute a fraction of a percent to that total.

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