CHICAGO — While President Donald Trump was tweeting his “concerns” about Amazon.com Thursday morning, accusing the company of “putting many thousands of retailers out of business,” the Seattle-based e-commerce giant was preparing to give public officials and the press a sneak peek at its first warehouse in Illinois where robots work alongside humans to fill customers’ orders.
Amazon’s rapid expansion has created challenges for retail and other industries. But the company says it also has led to investment and new jobs, even as it introduces automated technology to handle some of the work that used to require human employees.
Although Amazon was giving outsiders their first look at the warehouse in south suburban Monee, it has been in operation since August. More than 2,000 full-time employees work alongside a fleet of squat, 320-pound orange robots that roll almost silently under the square towers of shelves they deliver to workers stowing newly arrived items or picking out products to be packed and shipped.
But most workers’ jobs “aren’t as different as you’d think” from what they’d be doing in a fulfillment center without robots, said Jeff Messenger, the facility’s general manager.
The warehouse is the company’s first facility in Illinois where robots work alongside people to fill customer orders.
They work alongside their human counterparts rather than replace them, said Messenger, who describes himself on Twitter as a “robot manager” and worked in a Kenosha, Wis., fulfillment center that also uses the robots before coming to Monee.
Amazon says facilities with robots tend to employ more people than those without them because they’re more efficient and process more orders. The 850,000-square-foot Monee site is one of nine Illinois fulfillment centers, which range in size from 400,000 square feet to nearly one million.
It accounts for about a fifth of the more than 10,000 employees Amazon says it has in the state.
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Of the more than 175 Amazon fulfillment centers worldwide, more than 25 have the Amazon Robotics drive units, with at least 100,000 in use. They’re typically deployed in warehouses near cities, where there is a lot of demand for small consumer items that are easier for robots to deal with.
Other fulfillment centers stock large, irregularly shaped items, such as TVs and kayaks, that would pose more of a challenge.
Filling the same number of orders without the robots would require more people, and the jobs created by the need to build and maintain the new technology likely don’t close the gap, said Marc Wulfraat, president of consulting firm MWVPL.
“But the big driver a lot of people lose sight of is the huge shortage of employees to work in warehouses,” he said. “It’s not just Amazon (that is) having to automate some aspects as a result.”
The robots, which cover about five feet per second, can carry up to 750 pounds, sliding with towers on its back while navigating along 90-degree-angle paths by scanning markers on the floor. They have cameras to sense if something unexpected is in the way, but Amazon still keeps separate work areas for people and robots.